ATLANTA — Alabama is right where it always seems to be: playing for a title.
For Missouri, this also is becoming the norm.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1) will be trying to lock up a spot in college football’s inaugural playoff when it takes on the No. 14 Tigers (10-2) in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game on Saturday.
In what passed for a rebuilding year in Tuscaloosa, Alabama survived the brutal SEC West to make it to Atlanta for the fourth time in the past seven years under Nick Saban.
If the Tide knocks off Missouri — Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite — its next game likely will be on New Year’s Day at the Sugar Bowl in a national semifinal.
Rest assured, Saban will make sure his players aren’t looking ahead.
“What’s special about this one is you get a chance to run for a ring, an SEC championship ring, and be named conference champion,” said safety Landon Collins, the former Dutchtown standout. “It’s going to be one of the best games you play in.”
Missouri is back at the Georgia Dome for the second year in a row as SEC East champions. Not bad for a school that’s only been in the league for three years.
“Any team that can repeat and represent the East, they’re a great team and a great program,” Alabama’s Nick Perry said. “We’re definitely not overlooking these guys.”
Missouri also went to the Big 12 title game in 2007 and 2008 before shifting to the SEC.
But while the Tigers keep getting close to the prize, they haven’t been able to win an outright conference title since 1960. They were blown out by Oklahoma in their two Big 12 appearances and couldn’t keep up with Auburn in last year’s SEC title game, losing 59-42.
After going 5-7 in its first year in the SEC, Missouri has beaten out more traditional football powers such as Georgia and Florida the past two seasons to make an immediate mark in its new home.
“I’m one of those guys that goes in thinking I’m going to win every game every year as a coach,” Pinkel said. “After the first year (in the SEC), I probably would have questioned that a little bit. We had a lot of injuries. But we’ve been very, very healthy the last couple years, which has certainly helped us.”
No one has ruled the college football landscape like Alabama since Saban took over the program in 2007. His first year was a struggle, but since then the Tide has gone 83-10 with three national championships and two SEC crowns.
“Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, a lot of the coaches, great, great coaches ... most of those guys had 95, 105, 115 scholarships at least a portion of their career. I don’t know that anybody has done as consistent a job at coaching with 85 scholarships as Nick Saban has,” Pinkel said.
Some things to watch for when Alabama faces Missouri:
BAMA’S DYNAMIC OFFENSE: The Tide can win in a bunch of ways, whether it’s throwing to WR Amari Cooper (103 receptions, 1,573 yards, 14 touchdowns) or handing off to the running back duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry (who have combined for 1,639 yards and 16 touchdowns). Senior QB Blake Sims has come up big in his only year as start, and the line has surrendered only 11 sacks.
MIZZOU’S QUESTIONABLE OFFENSE: While Alabama has been an offensive juggernaut, Missouri has endured some rocky times with the ball. QB Maty Mauk threw four interceptions in the Tigers’ only SEC loss, a 34-0 blowout at home by Georgia. They had to grind out wins the past three weeks against Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas.
THE SABAN FACTOR: Saban is an imposing figure to any opponent, and Saturday will be no different. His adjustments are the stuff of legend, so even if the Tigers have some success in the first two quarters, they’ll have to be prepared for a different look in the second half.
MISSOURI’S D-LINE: The Tigers have a chance to create some havoc with a defensive front led by ends Shane Ray (13.5 sacks, 20.5 tackles for losses) and Markus Golden (8.5 sacks, 16 tackles for losses).