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.