What to watch for: Missouri vs. Alabama

The SEC Championship Trophy is displayed at a news conference Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, at the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta. The Missouri Tigers will play the Alabama Crimson Tide tomorrow at 4:00pm EST.

No. 14 Missouri takes on No. 1 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game on Saturday in Atlanta. Here are five things to watch for in the game.

1. Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel’s plan to limit Amari Cooper

Mizzou will be faced with arguably its toughest challenge defensively this season against Alabama. Amari Cooper is the best wide receiver in the nation and will likely be a Heisman finalist. Cooper has hauled in 103 receptions for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Not only is he explosive, but he’s also the model of consistency for receivers. Seven times this season, Cooper had 100 receiving yards in a game, including a career high 224 yards and three touchdowns last week against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Given Mizzou’s questionable secondary, Steckel will have to tactically bring help over the top to double Cooper and eliminate him from some plays. However, the Tigers likely won’t be able to do this on every play. If Cooper is held in check, somebody else will have to step up for the Crimson Tide.

2. Ability of Mizzou’s defensive line to control the line of scrimmage

Perhaps the biggest matchup of the game is Alabama’s offensive line versus Mizzou’s defensive line. Both are among the top in the nation, and something will have to give on Saturday. The Crimson Tide have allowed just 11 sacks this season, which ranks seventh nationally. Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defensive line has 40 sacks on the year, good for sixth in the country. If defensive ends Shane Ray, Markus Golden and the rest of the Tiger defensive line can get a solid pass rush on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, it will help take Cooper out of the game, which would be a big blow for the Crimson Tide.

3. The special teams battle

Both teams have exceptional guys in the return game. Mizzou senior Marcus Murphy has three returns for touchdowns (two kickoff, one punt) this season and seven in his career (four punt, three kickoff). Although he has taken a bit of a step back statistically this season, Alabama’s Christion Jones has four returns for touchdowns in his career (two kickoff, two punt).

Mizzou and Alabama each have susceptible kicking games. Missouri senior kicker Andrew Baggett has connected on just 14 of 21 field goal attempts this season, while Alabama’s Adam Griffith has made just 12 of 18 attempts. However, Baggett might carry over some momentum from last week’s Mizzou win over Arkansas, in which he nailed two 50-plus-yard field goals in the first half.

In the punting game, the Crimson Tide has a clear edge. JK Scott is the best punter in the SEC and ranks second nationally with an average of 47.2 yards per punt. To compare, Missouri senior punter Christian Brinser ranks just 80th at 40.9 yards per punt. If one play is going to change this game, it could very likely come on special teams.

4. Mizzou sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk’s ability to make smart decisions

If Missouri is going to have a chance in this game, Mauk will likely need to have a career performance. Although the perception is Alabama’s defense will frustrate passing games and shut them down, the Crimson Tide can be beat over the top. Auburn exploited Alabama last week in the passing game as Nick Marshall racked up 456 yards through the air. Expect Missouri to have watched film from that game and adopt a similar strategy to Auburn. Also, short, quick screens and slants will continue to be Mauk’s best friend. Since the Tigers’ began to adopt this “simplistic” style of offense, Mauk’s numbers have considerably improved. Since a career-worst performance against Florida, Mauk has thrown for eight touchdowns and thrown just two interceptions, courtesy of quick passes. Also, whereas Mauk used to try to extend plays by throwing into double or even triple coverage, he now uses his legs more often and has eased into more of a dual-threat role. If Mauk can continue to make the right decisions and not turn the ball over, Missouri will have a shot.

5. Alabama coach Nick Saban’s willingness to stick with quarterback Blake Sims

Last week against Auburn, Sims had thrown three interceptions, including one to end the first half and one to begin the second half. Alabama was trailing 33-21 and their No. 1 ranking was in danger. Backup quarterback Jake Coker began warming up along the sidelines, but Saban opted to stick with Sims behind center. He responded with five consecutive touchdown drives. If Missouri’s defense can force a similar situation, it will be interesting to see how long the leash is on Sims given the stakes of the game. If Ray and Golden can get into the backfield early off the snap, Sims’ best weapon, the deep ball, will be taken away.

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