ATLANTA (AP) — Blake Sims went out for one more snap, then trotted off the field to a standing ovation from the Alabama fans.
When he got to the sideline, there was a long embrace with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
The wait was sure worth it.
Sims, the fifth-year senior who finally got a chance to start this season, threw a pair of touchdown passes in an MVP performance that carried top-ranked Alabama to a spot in college football’s inaugural playoff. The Crimson Tide routed No. 14 Missouri 42-13 to win its 24th Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday.
“You love to see a guy who’s gone through what he’s gone through, who’s worked so hard and always persevered, then have success,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “It’s a credit to his character and work ethic.”
In a sense, it’s like Sims is trying to make up for lost time, running Kiffin’s fast-paced offense to perfection.
They turned out to be the perfect match, Sims’ versatility allowing the Tide to speed things up.
“He’s the reason that we do it, because it’s what he does best,” Saban said. “And if we didn’t do it, I don’t think we’d be here where we are right now.
“I’ve never seen a guy work so hard,” Saban said.
This has also been a season of redemption for Kiffin, the guy who rubbed so many people the wrong way during stints as a head coach. His record never matched his bravado, but Saban picked him to run the Alabama offense.
Some scoffed at the choice.
As usual, Saban had the last laugh.
Wearing a white windbreaker, a play card in hand, Kiffin made the calls that helped Alabama pile up a commanding 504-313 edge in total yards.
Sims was brilliant, completing 23 of 27 for 262 yards as Alabama pulled away with a 21-point fourth quarter. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry each had a couple of touchdown runs. Amari Cooper did nothing to hurt his Heisman chances, setting an SEC championship record with 12 receptions.
Missouri made it a one-score game in the third quarter, closing to 21-13, but there was no stopping Alabama (12-1) from locking up its spot in college football’s inaugural playoff, most likely with a semifinal game at the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. And if the committee was impressed by second-ranked Oregon’s 51-13 rout of Arizona in the Pac-12 title game Friday night, they got another equally dominating performance from the team on top of the latest rankings.
For Saban and the Tide, this one was especially sweet.
A year ago, Alabama was poised to make a run at its third straight national title when Auburn won the Iron Bowl on the final play — a 109-yard return of a missed field goal.
Alabama was ranked No. 1 by the playoff committee after winning the brutal SEC West. By knocking off the East champion, the Tide made it three SEC titles in Saban’s dominating eight years as coach, a run that increasingly looks like the second coming of Bear Bryant in a much more competitive era.
If Saban can win two more games, it would be his fourth national title in Tuscaloosa — just one away from Bryant’s five AP titles.
At the start, Alabama tried to run Missouri (10-3) right out of the building.
Kiffin called a bunch of short passes and runs to deal with Missouri’s fearsome pass rush, which led the SEC in sacks. The Tide went 68 yards in 10 plays — never even going to third down — to seize a 7-0 lead less than 4 minutes into the game.
Plucky Missouri, which reached the title game for the second year in a row despite ugly losses to Indiana and Georgia, managed to stay in this one much of the way thanks to Maty Mauk’s deep passing. He completed throws of 63, 47, 32 and 26 yards, one of them on a Johnny Manziel-like scramble in which he threw back across his body running to his left.
But that wasn’t nearly enough against the Crimson Tide juggernaut.
After dinking the Tigers with short throws, Sims suddenly went deep on a 58-yard touchdown pass to DeAndrew White that made it 14-0 early in the second quarter. Sims hung in the pocket despite a brutal hit that got Missouri’s star defensive end, Shane Ray, ejected from the game for targeting.
Sims wasn’t done.
On the first snap of the fourth quarter, the fifth-year senior hooked up with Christion Jones on a 6-yard TD toss that stretched the lead to 28-13.
For good measure, Henry tacked on a couple of touchdown runs to make it a blowout. He finished with 141 yards on 20 carries.
Missouri struggled to run against the Tide defense, limited to 41 yards on 23 carries. Mauk was 16 of 34 for 272 yards.
“Once we got the game pretty close,” Missouri receiver Jimmie Hunt said, “they did what they needed to do to finish it.”
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