Sponsors pay a pretty penny for their name on postseason football games but you would be forgiven if you scratched out the Valero Alamo Bowl's formal name this year and simply dubbed it the Interim Bowl. While that kind of moniker would typically spell depressed interest and a lack of watchability, that might not quite be the case as two brand-name programs like Oklahoma and Oregon meet in San Antonio for one of the more unique bowl games of 2021.
It's been a wild and almost unfathomable path to this point for both programs, which were each in the thick of College Football Playoff contention as recently as mid-November and were the heavy betting favorites to take home their respective conference titles. Instead, few teams will have their motivations questioned more than these two following departures from both head coaches combined with a wave of NFL draft declarations, transfer decisions, and opt-outs.
The Sooners may still be processing the fact that, after coming up one drive short of playing for yet another Big 12 championship, head coach Lincoln Riley stunned the college football world by moving to USC less than a day after the team lost to rival Oklahoma State. Following an initial outburst of anger at the change that was felt across the entire state, the school moved quickly to lure former assistant Brent Venables to Norman from his cushy gig as Clemson's defensive coordinator. The raspy, mile-a-minute former linebacker is unlike his offensive-minded predecessor in a lot of ways but will similarly catch the Alamo Bowl from a different perspective, as his old boss will be calling the shots during the game. Yes, that would be freshly minted College Football Hall of Famer Bob Stoops trading his FOX pregame mic for a headset one more time as Oklahoma's 23rd consecutive bowl game is unlike any other.
Out West, Ducks players at least had an inkling that Mario Cristobal could return home to coach at his alma mater given weeks of speculation before their Pac-12 title game loss, but that doesn't take the sting out of it any further. Following a triumphant victory at Ohio State that was supposed to set a tone for the year, the team instead mostly just shifted from neutral (narrow wins over Cal, UCLA) to reverse (an overtime loss to Stanford, getting thumped by Utah twice) to something else entirely. They will get a dose of youthful energy from incoming head coach Dan Lanning when he's not busy prepping Georgia's defense for a national title but will mostly try to end the year on a high note under interim Bryan McClendon.
The series is lopsided in favor of Oklahoma (6-1), but the pair hasn't met since 2006, when the Sooners were denied a win at Autzen Stadium following a controversial call on an onside kick. You can bet a dollar Stoops hasn't forgotten what happened in Eugene that day 15 years ago and will be using it and plenty else to try and get his team motivated for a rematch that is really unlike a lot of past meetings.
Valero Alamo Bowl: No. 14 Oregon (10-3) vs. No. 16 Oklahoma (10-2)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 29 at 9:15 p.m. ET
Where: Alamodome (San Antonio)
Spread: Oklahoma -4.5
When Oregon Has the Ball
The Ducks are not only losing their head coach, but their offensive coordinator is leaving for a different gig too. At least in the case of Joe Moorhead, he'll be staying behind to call plays one last time before taking over as Akron's head coach. That's good news for the team on hand, as the extra practice time could really help them develop a few additional wrinkles in his RPO-heavy system that will benefit from senior leadership out of quarterback Anthony Brown. His legs have proven to be especially dangerous during his time with the program and none of the leftover staff are unlikely to limit his exposure to contact, so it could be a heavy dose of the ground game for the most part between him and fellow upperclassman tailback Travis Dye. Outside of those two however, this offense is extremely young and playing in their first bowl environment for the most part, including the likely scenario of three freshman receivers, a freshman tight end, and a freshman running back all seeing action on the field as either starters or regular rotation members. The fan base has been clamoring for five-star QB Ty Thompson to get an extended amount of run, and that could well be the case on Wednesday night regardless of the score.
Oklahoma's defense is much more of a question mark given the absence of coordinator Alex Grinch (who followed Riley to USC), their leading tackler (LB Brian Asamoah), and top three sack-getters (Isaiah Thomas/Nik Bonitto/Perrion Winfrey). You can at least count on the team to be active no matter who gets trotted out to get snaps, however, as the Sooners lead the country in forced fumbles and have proven to be particularly active on the back end with timely interceptions. Corner Woodi Washington has played a presence in that as he returned from injury to notch two interceptions in the Bedlam loss. Stoops may prove to be a little more hands-on with this group given his expertise which is something to consider as well.
When Oklahoma Has the Ball
Riley's departure for Los Angeles sent the rumor mill swirling that quarterback Caleb Williams could be next in line, but so far that hasn't happened — with backup and one-time Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler actually the one making it to the USC on the opposite coast. The young freshman had his moments throughout the year with the Sooners, but Williams also had plenty of others that showed his inexperience. He's electric with the ball in his hands, however, and the 15 practices under his belt as the certified starter should allow him to continue his progress as a signal-caller while providing balance to the OU run game. Given his background, it wouldn't be surprising if Stoops doesn't save a few things for Williams in terms of shots at big plays but opts mostly to stick with the basics. Given that Oklahoma averages 5.2 yards per carry and their opponent's run defense was just torched by Utah twice in three weeks, the play-calling may skew a bit heavier on the ground before the scoreboard starts to dictate where the team goes from there.
Defensively, Oregon will be missing the best player west of the Mississippi this year in potential No. 1 pick Kayvon Thibodeaux after he turned his attention to the draft about as soon as he walked off the field in Las Vegas during the Pac-12 Championship Game. While the loss of such a marquee player will undoubtedly affect a group like the Ducks, the good news is there are still others plenty capable of picking up the slack. Safety Verone McKinley III was an absolute ball hawk (nation-leading six picks) on his way to first-team All-American honors and is liable to play a big part in coming down the alley to help with run defense too. That's typically the domain of linebacker Noah Sewell, who should have his hands full in the box despite coming off a first-team All-Pac-12 season of his own and leading Oregon's D in tackles and tackles for a loss.
Despite a patchwork of coaches and players being involved in this one following changes at the top for both programs, this meeting of programs going through various states of interlude offers plenty of storylines and playmakers for the future. Neither side exactly ended their campaign on a high note, so it would be good to two-step out of Texas with a victory and just a tiny bit of momentum heading into 2022.
If Oregon can somehow find a way to stop the run better than it has the last month of the season, this has the chance to be a pretty compelling shootout between contrasting offensive and defensive styles. Something says, however, that Stoops didn't just sign up for one last rodeo with the Sooners to add one in the wrong column on his record book, even if this isn't quite the caliber of game we expected to see "Big Game Bob" back on the sidelines for. When it comes to a battle between teams with interim head coaches, it would be wise to go with the one that has Hall of Fame attached to his name as a properly motivated OU side runs away with this for win No. 191 under the familiar face.
Prediction: Oklahoma 34, Oregon 20
Podcast: Previewing Every Bowl Game
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.