- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Missouri enters Saturday's SEC championship game as a big underdog against Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC), but that's nothing new for the Tigers (10-2, 7-1).
After humiliating losses to Indiana and Georgia, Mizzou closing the regular season with a six-game winning streak and a second straight SEC East title seemed highly unlikely. And yet here are the Tigers, trying to figure out a way to keep their streak alive against easily the best team they have faced all season.
Knocking off the nation's No. 1 team won't be easy, but here are three assets the Tigers might be able to use to their advantage against Alabama.
Dynamic pass rush
One of the most intriguing matchups in Saturday's game will be Missouri's pass-rushers against Alabama's offensive line. Both groups are the best in the SEC at what they do.
Led by Shane Ray, who has an SEC-high 13.5 sacks for 89 yards in lost ground, the Tigers are tied for sixth nationally with 40 sacks. They have three of the SEC's top 11 pass-rushers, with defensive end Markus Golden (fifth with 8.5) and defensive tackle Harold Brantley (tied for 11th with 4.5) joining Ray on the list.
However, Alabama has surrendered only 11 sacks -- which is tied for eighth nationally -- all season. Quarterback Blake Sims, who is occasionally mistake-prone, has only been sacked eight times.
If Ray & Co. can force Sims into some bad throws, the Tigers have displayed an ability to capitalize this season. They are second in the SEC and tied for 18th nationally with a plus-nine turnover margin and they're 24th nationally with a plus-38 points-off-turnover margin (65 scored, 27 against).
Sims nearly got pulled from Saturday's game against Auburn after the Tigers scored 17 points off his three interceptions. He and star receiver Amari Cooper helped the Crimson Tide rally to win 55-44 with an impressive late surge, however.
Overall, the Tide is subpar when it comes to turnovers. They have two more giveaways (19) than takeaways (17), with their minus-two turnover margin tying for 72nd nationally. Alabama opponents have scored 60 points off the turnovers, with the Tide cashing in with 56 points off takeaways. The minus-four points-off-turnover margin is tied for 77th nationally.
The biggest issue for Alabama has been its 12 fumbles and not Sims' interceptions. The senior quarterback has thrown 24 touchdowns against just seven picks and ranks second nationally in adjusted Total Quarterback Rating at 87.9.
Marcus Murphy factor
Special teams have been the weak link in Alabama's armor for a couple of years now, and the Tide has had its share of lapses in that department this season, as well. That has to excite the Tigers when explosive return man Marcus Murphy is on their side.
Murphy leads the SEC with an average of 31.9 yards per kickoff return and ranks fourth in the league with 11.5 yards per punt return. He scored touchdowns off a punt return, a kickoff return and a traditional run in the Tigers' win against Florida alone.
With Murphy leading the way, Missouri ranks seventh nationally and second in the SEC with an average of 25.05 yards per kickoff return, and 21st nationally and fourth in the SEC with 11.5 yards per punt return.
Meanwhile, Alabama is 88th in opponent kickoff return average (12.83 ypr) and 60th on opponent punt return average (7.3 ypr). In the Tide's defense, however, punter J.K. Scott and the punt coverage team have not given up a ton of yardage. They rank second nationally in net punting with 43.13 yards gained per punt minus the return.
If Murphy can find a way to break a big return against Alabama's typically exceptional punt coverage, that could be an enormous momentum builder for the Tigers.