7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Alabama -27, Over/Under: 56
With the COVID-19 pandemic delaying (or in some cases postponing) the start of many league campaigns, the mighty SEC finally gets back to business in 2020 as the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide head to Columbia to battle the Missouri Tigers from Faurot Field. After four consecutive appearances in the CFP National Championship Game (netting a pair of National Titles), Alabama (11-2, 6-2 in SEC in 2019) missed out on the Playoff altogether for the first time since 2014, as their reign over the Southeast Conference finally came to an end. However, don’t expect that to be the status quo for long, because they don’t entertain the notion of rebuilding in Tuscaloosa, they simply reload. Since arriving back in 2007, Nick Saban has turned the Tide into THE dominant force in the sport, going 157-23 (.872) in his fourteen years on the sidelines, securing five National Championships in that period of time, all the while creating arguably the most successful and plentiful pipeline to the National Football League. Bottom line is this: he obviously knows how to coach, but he’s also one helluva recruiter. And the latter of those truths is why this team likely won’t miss much of a beat heading into this season, for even though they haven’t had the amount of preparation that the 68-year old would like, nobody in the FBS has enjoyed what could be described as anything remotely close to a normal offseason of preparation, and above all else Alabama remains flush with TALENT.
With that said, let’s take a moment to reflect upon what they’ve lost. This Spring alone, Alabama saw nine players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, including four within the first fifteen picks. Prolific Receivers, Henry Ruggs (40 REC, 746 YDS, 18.7 Y/R, 7 TD in 2019) and Jerry Jeudy (77 REC, 1,163 YDS, 15.1 Y/R, 10 TD in 2019) went Twelfth and Fifteenth Overall respectively, while Right Tackle, Jedrick Wills, rounded out the Top-10, with Quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa (71.4%, 2,840 YDS, 11.3 Y/A, 33 TD, 3 INT, 206.9 RATE in 2019), coming off the board with the Fifth Overall Pick. Furthermore, the Defense was hit hard on the second day of the event, with Defensive Backs, Xavier McKinney (95 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 FR, 4 FF, 3 INT, 1 TD, 5 PD in 2019) and Trevon Diggs (37 TKL, 0.5 TFL, 2 FR, 3 INT, 8 PD, 2 TD in 2019), along with Defensive Tackle Raekwon Davis (47 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 0.5 SK in 2019) taken in the Second Round, and Linebackers, Terrell Lewis (31 TKL, 11.5 TFL, 6.0 SK, 1 FR, 2 PD in 2019) and Anfernee Jennings (83 TKL, 12.5 TFL, 8.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 5 PD in 2019), hearing their names called in the Third. Needless to say, that’s not only ten starters that need to be replaced, but that’s a high degree of TALENT (there’s that word again) that will no longer be plying their trade on Saturdays. Ruggs and Jeudy alone accounted for a staggering 107 receptions for 1,909 yards and seventeen touchdowns last season, while Wills protected the lefthanded Tagovailoa’s blindside. Oh, and even though he saw his Junior campaign come to a premature end due to a serious hip injury, Tua was on another level in 2019, leaving Tuscaloosa as easily the most prolific Quarterback in the storied history of the program; over the past three years he had thrown for 7,442 yards and eighty-seven touchdowns, making his post-halftime debut in storybook fashion in the 2017 National Championship where his walk-off touchdown won the school it’s latest National Title, before leading the Crimson Tide to a 22-2 record as the starter over the following two seasons. Defensively, ‘Bama wasn’t necessarily as dominant as they had been in previous years, but they were nonetheless formidable, and will be looking to replace five starters from a unit that relinquished just 18.6 points per game (13th Overall) on 324.6 total yards, including 187.2 yards against the pass and another 137.4 yards versus the run, while also forcing a healthy twenty-eight turnovers.
“We’ve just got to keep working as a team and focus on this upcoming game because you’ve got to go in there and execute and do your job, and that’s for everybody, not just the starting quarterback.”Mac Jones, Alabama Quarterback
So who will be replacing this talented crop of players, you ask? Simply put, the next generation. The feeling in Tuscaloosa is that the aforementioned Ruggs and Jeudy won’t be missed much at all once Devonta Smith (68 REC, 1,256 YDS, 18.5 Y/R, 14 TD in 2019) and Jaylen Waddle (33 REC, 560 YDS, 17.0 Y/R, 6 TD in 2019) receive more reps, with the tandem of Receivers accounting for 101 receptions for 1,816 yards and twenty touchdowns, with both averaging at least 17.0 yards per catch. Smith actually led the Tide with 1,256 yards in 2019, while many around the program believe that Waddle may just as fast (or perhaps faster) than Ruggs, who was one of the fastest players attending the NFL’s Scouting Combine. Defensively, Patrick Surtain Jr. (42 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 1 FR, 3 FF, 2 INT, 8 PD in 2019) appears to be the highest-rated Cornerback in the country, while the return of a healthy Dylan Moses (86 TKL, 10.0 TFL, 3.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD in 2018), who led the team in tackles back in 2018 before missing all of the previous season with a torn ACL, should bring plenty of violence to the Linebacker Corps. But what about Quarterback, you ask? Well, the solution looks like it’s going to be Mac Jones (68.8%, 1,503 YDS, 10.7 Y/A, 14 TD, 3 INT in 2019), who patiently bid his time behind Tagovailoa over the past two seasons, before filling in for his injured teammate towards the end of 2019. The Redshirt Junior performed well after Tua injured his hip against Mississippi State, completing 68.4% of his attempts for an average of 312.3 yards, with ten touchdowns opposed to a pair of interceptions over the final three contests, including a stellar 327-yard, 3-touchdown performance in a 35-16 victory over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. The Tide went 2-1 in those outings, with that lone defeat being a 48-45 affair with bitter rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Furthermore, the Offense as a whole performed as expected with Jones at the wheel, averaging 48.6 points on 512.0 total yards. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Alabama appears to be in good hands in 2020.
Meanwhile, as their opponent looks to regain their dominance, Missouri (6-6, 3-5 in SEC in 2019) is simply trying to get this new era of football off the ground. After four largely mediocre seasons, the program parted ways with former Head Coach, Barry Odom, and in turn hired Eliah Drinkwitz to be their new leading man. Drinkwitz spent last season guiding Appalachian State to a 12-1 finish culminating in a Sun Belt Championship and a victory over UAB in the New Orleans Bowl (though he had already left for Missouri at that point). The 37-year old had only spent one season with the Mountaineers after previously traveling all over the place earlier in his coaching career. A product of Gus Malzhan’s Coaching Staff at Arkansas State from 2012-2013, Drinkwitz traveled to Boise State where he spent the following two years coaching Tight Ends and Quarterbacks, before enjoying a three-year stay with North Carolina State as their Offensive Coordinator from 2016 to 2018. Now in Columbia, there are two major challenges that he will have to face: in the short term he must find a way to keep his team afloat during rampant concerns over COVID-19, which has led to an exodus of players, while in the long term he must make the Tigers more competitive within the SEC. Will get to the former shortly, but as for the latter, Mizzou has struggled mightily since joining the conference back in 2012. While the transition was a financial boon for the Athletics Department, it hasn’t translated to success on the gridiron, where they’ve mustered a 58-44 record overall (.568), including a dismal 30-34 mark (.468) in league play. However, Malzhan’s offensive strategies have been a hit in the SEC, and if one of his disciples can replicate that success than this program should be well on their way towards improving their standing against the likes of the Alabama’s of the world.
Getting back to the more pressing of those challenges that we listed, Drinkwitz is getting ready to kick off his tenure at Missouri without potentially a dozen players, who either tested positive for COVID-19 or can be traced to another individual who has. Indeed, there have been a number of games that have already been postponed following concerns of positional thresholds effected by the virus, and at first glance, the Tigers appeared to be falling into the same category. With that said, the Head Coach stated during his Press Conference earlier in the week that five of those players (who have been listed as nameless) in question were subject to inconclusive tests that came back negative, allowing them to play in tonight’s opener. Overall though, the Tigers lost Defensive End, Chris Daniels, and Wideout, Maurice Massey, with each player choosing to opt out of the campaign due to concerns over COVID-19, leaving the roster with sixty-nine scholarship athletes on hand, which is well above the minimum threshold that the SEC mandated within their guidelines for postponements/cancellations in their return to play. Another departure from the program is perhaps the most significant, as Taylor Powell (46.1%, 431 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 1 TD, 2 INT, 85.9 RATE in 2019) was in line to become the Starting Quarterback before opting to transfer instead. The Redshirt Junior failed to impress in his tenure in Columbia, appearing in just nine games over the past two seasons, completing just 46.1% of his attempts for 431 yards a touchdown and a pair of interceptions behind former Clemson star, Kelly Bryant. As for who will be lining up under center for tonight’s meeting with the Crimson Tide… well, that’s still very much in the air; Drinkwitz has refrained from naming a starter, partly due to gamesmanship, as he has already stated that he would like to keep his opponent on their toes before kickoff. In all honesty, he’s going to need more than that against Alabama, but judging from the roster we would wager that either it will either be Connor Bazelak (71.4%, 144 YDS, 6.9 Y/A, 0 TD, 0 INT, 129.0 RATE in 2019) or Shawn Robinson (60.8%, 1,334 YDS, 6.5 Y/A, 9 TD, 8 INT, 122.4 RATE in 2019) getting the nod. The former is a Redshirt Freshman who appeared in three games last season, while the latter is a transfer from TCU where he started seven games in 2019, throwing for 1,334 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. Between the two players, Robinson looks like he may be the favorite due to his proven ability to make plays with his feet, rushing for 230 yards and three scores a year ago for the Horned Frogs. Historically, mobile Quarterbacks have achieved success against Nick Saban’s defenses, and if Malzahn’s attack at Auburn is of any indication as to how Missouri expects to play, then the Redshirt Junior is likely the best bet.
“The person who’s going to play us first has no idea if they’re going to scout Washington tape, UAB tape, TCU tape, App State tape, N.C. State tape… They don’t know which quarterback to prepare for. Whether they’re going to watch high school tape for a kid, watch the Arkansas game from last year, the Georgia game from last year or a TCU game from two years ago. So, poor GAs and QCs.”Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri Head Coach
In the end, the Offense is expected to be very much a work in progress in 2019, though it’s a different story defensively, where Missouri was definitely one of the better teams in the country. Simply put, if Drinkwitz wants to make an impression in his first season in Columbia, then the Defense will have to carry him. The Tigers allowed just 19.4 points per game (16th Overall) on 314.0 total yards (14th Overall), including 179.3 yards against the pass and another 134.8 yards versus the run, with their performance against the pass drawing rave reviews from within the league, which is really saying something. In 2019, Mizzou relegated opposing Quarterbacks to a miserable 50.3% completion percentage and only permitting over 200 yards on four occasions. A number of key contributors return from last year’s group, including Senior Defensive Lineman, Kobie Whiteside (28 TKL, 7.5 TFL, 7.5 SK, 1 FR in 2019), who led the unit with 7.5 sacks, Junior Linebacker, Nick Bolton (103 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 1 TD, 7 PD in 2019), who paced the SEC in both solo (74) and total tackles (103), and Senior Safeties, Tyree Gillespie (50 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 7 PD in 2019) and Joshuah Bledsoe (49 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR, 10 PD in 2019), who together accounted for ninety-nine tackles, eight of which were for a loss, seventeen deflected passes, and a pair of forced fumbles.