Tide and Tigers tangle for SEC supremacy

Atlanta, GA (SportsNetwork.com) – The 2014 SEC Championship Game kicks off in
the Georgia Dome on Saturday afternoon, with the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide
pitted against the No. 14 Missouri Tigers.

This year’s Iron Bowl had a lot to live up to after last year’s amazing
finish, but the 2014 version was nearly as exciting, as Alabama overcame a
second-half deficit to capture a 55-44 victory in the highest-scoring contest
in series history.

“It makes you proud,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of his team’s resiliency.
“I’m sure our players are extremely happy to win the (SEC) West and have an
opportunity to go to the SEC Championship Game.”

The Tide are now 11-1 overall and with last week’s win they were able to
overtake Florida State for the top spot in the AP poll. They have advanced to
the SEC Championship Game for the fourth time in the last seven years, having
won the game in 2009 and 2012.

“It’s a great competitive venue, and one of the most exciting game that I’ve
had an opportunity to compete and play in through the years the few times that
we’ve been able to get there,” Saban said. “This is a special opportunity. Our
conference is very difficult, so this is a pretty significant accomplishment
to be in the game.”

Since going just 2-6 in the league in its first-ever SEC season in 2012,
Missouri has adjusted to life in its new conference very well by winning back-
to-back SEC Eastern Division titles. The Tigers needed to win their regular-
season finale to get in the title game this season, and after facing an early
14-3 deficit at home against Arkansas, they climbed back to capture a 21-14
victory for their sixth straight win to move to 10-2 and 7-1 in the
conference.

“This has not been an easy year, but we battled and competed,” Missouri coach
Gary Pinkel said. “It’s our second time down there in a row, and I’ll tell you
this, that’s hard to do…Having the experience of being in this game
certainly helps. (The players) understand how awesome of an experience it is.
Ultimately though, it goes back to playing you best football.”

The Tide and the Tigers have split four all-time meetings, with Alabama
winning most recently in 2012, 42-10.

Alabama’s offense has been excellent all season long, averaging 36.7 ppg and
489.3 ypg with great balance between the run (206.8 ypg) and the pass (282.6
ypg). Last week the unit was especially potent in overcoming a 12-point
deficit in racking up 539 yards.

Amari Cooper stepped up on the biggest stage last week, tying his program
record with 224 yards on 13 receptions while scoring three touchdowns. Cooper
has emerged this season as the nation’s most dominant receiver, as he ranks in
the top three in the FBS in catches (103), yards (1,573) and touchdowns (14).
His accomplishments are even greater when considering he’s the Tide’s only
dangerous receiving threat. No one else has more than 33 receptions.

Blake Sims has done a great job under center, completing 63.1 percent of his
passes for 2,988 yards with 24 touchdowns to just seven interceptions while
adding stellar rushing stats as well (302 yards, six TDs). He tossed three
picks a week ago but helped neutralize those mistakes with five total
touchdowns.

The rushing attack is spearheaded by two of the most talented backs in the
country – T.J. Yeldon (885 yards, eight TDs) and Derrick Henry (754 yards,
eight TDs). The duo combined for 199 yards and three touchdowns on 24 attempts
against Auburn.

Alabama’s stout defense had a major hiccup a week ago in allowing 630 yards,
but the unit is still one of the nation’s best in yielding just 16.9 ppg and
312.0 ypg.

Linebacker Reggie Ragland (86 tackles, 8.5 TFL, INT, three fumble recoveries)
and safety Landon Collins (84 tackles, three INTs) are two of the best players
at their positions in the conference. Xzavier Dickson (10.5 TFL, 8.0 sacks),
Nick Perry (71 tackles, two INTs) and Cyrus Jones (43 tackles, two INTs) are
also in the midst of great seasons.

The Tigers have found success this season without the luxury of a potent
offense, as they put up a modest 28.6 ppg on 365.9 ypg. The unit may not be
explosive but it has been timely, as it was last week when Marcus Murphy run
in a 12-yard score with under five minutes left to cap off the come-from-
behind victory.

Maty Mauk has been an enigma under center. On the positive side of things,
he’s accounted for 23 touchdowns, but he’s completing only 53.5 percent of
passes for 189.9 ypg with 11 interceptions.

Murphy, in addition to being a strong rusher (747 yards, four TDs), is one of
the nation’s best all-purpose weapons, showing prowess as a receiver (25
receptions, 185 yards, TD), a punt returner (273 yards, TD) and a kick
returner (415 yards, two TDs). The Tigers’ other effective running back,
Russell Hansbrough (949 yards, nine TDs), is listed on the injury report with
an ankle issue but is probable for Saturday’s matchup.

Mauk’s primary target in the passing game is Bud Sasser, who’s tallied 65
receptions for 904 yards and nine touchdowns. Jimmie Hunt has also been
stellar out wide with 34 receptions for 529 yards and seven scores.

Missouri has achieved such great heights this season behind the strength of
its defense, which ranks 13th in the nation in points allowed (19.7 ppg) and
16th in yards allowed (331.1 ypg), while forcing 22 turnovers.

Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer are two of the best tacklers in the SEC
with 103 and 100 stops, respectively. Shane Ray is an elite pass rusher with
20.5 TFL and 13.5 sacks, while Markus Golden (16.0 TFL, 8.5 sacks) also gets
plenty of pressure in the backfield. Braylon Webb anchors a strong secondary
with 62 tackles and four interceptions.