The second matchup of the 2018 College Football Playoff takes place in the Orange Bowl, as Alabama meets Oklahoma in the most anticipated showdown of the bowl season. The Crimson Tide are making their fifth consecutive appearance in the CFB Playoff, while the Sooners have three trips in five years. In addition to what’s at stake in terms of the national title and playoff implications, this matchup features a quarterback duel between the Heisman winner (Kyler Murray) and the runner-up (Tua Tagovailoa).
Alabama continued to set the standard for the rest of college football this season, as coach Nick Saban’s team rolled to a 13-0 mark behind Tagovailoa and a high-powered offense. Tagovailoa’s emergence as the No. 1 quarterback over Jalen Hurts completely transformed the Crimson Tide’s offense into one of the best in college football. In addition to the offensive prowess, Alabama still ranked near the top of the nation on defense, as Saban’s group limited opponents to 14.8 points a game. None of the Crimson Tide’s 12 regular season contests was decided by less than 22 points, but this team needed a second-half rally against Georgia to secure the SEC title. Despite losing the starting job to Tagovailoa, Hurts decided to remain in Tuscaloosa and was instrumental in the comeback versus the Bulldogs, which allowed Alabama to take the No. 1 ranking into the CFB Playoff.
After taking Oklahoma to the CFB Playoff in his first year at the helm, all Lincoln Riley had to do this offseason was replace Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, a standout left tackle in Orlando Brown and tight end Mark Andrews. Instead of regressing, this unit actually got better on the stat sheet. Murray filled Mayfield’s shoes on offense, guiding the Sooners to an average of 49.5 points a game (up from 45.1) and 8.8 yards a play (up from 8.3). While Oklahoma’s offense performed at historic levels, the defense struggled once again. The Sooners gave up 45 points in their only loss of 2018 (48-45 to Texas), which was also the final game for Mike Stoops as the program’s play-caller. Interim coordinator Ruffin McNeill hasn’t made a drastic shift in the overall performance of this unit, but Oklahoma’s defense made key plays at West Virginia and Texas, which helped this team secure the No. 4 spot in the final rankings.
Oklahoma holds a 3-1-1 series edge over Alabama. The Sooners and Crimson Tide have not met since the 2014 Sugar Bowl and have only three previous meetings since 2000.
Orange Bowl: Alabama (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (12-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 29 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Oklahoma’s Offense Against Alabama’s Defense
Oklahoma enters Saturday night’s matchup as a double-digit underdog. If Riley’s team is going to pull of the upset, another huge performance from the offense will be required. En route to winning the Heisman, Murray accounted for 4,945 total yards and 51 overall touchdowns. Additionally, the junior connected on 70.9 percent of his throws and leads the nation with 22 completions of 40 yards or more.
The high-powered Sooner attack isn’t just a one-man show on offense. The line won the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in college football and allowed only 16 sacks all year. Rodney Anderson was lost for the season after Week 2 due to injury, but the ground game didn’t miss a beat behind Kennedy Brooks (1,021 yards) and Trey Sermon (928). Murray’s favorite target has been Marquise Brown (75 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns), with CeeDee Lamb (57 for 1,049 yards) not far behind. However, Brown suffered an ankle/foot injury in the Big 12 Championship win over Texas and there’s some uncertainty surrounding his status. Brown was at practice after the Sooners arrived in Florida, which seems to be a good sign for his availability on Saturday. Even though Brown seems on track to play, it’s uncertain if he will be at 100 percent.
As expected out of a Nick Saban-coached team, Alabama’s defense ranks among the best in the nation. The Crimson Tide rank second nationally in pass efficiency defense, fourth in points allowed (14.8) and seventh in yards per play (4.5). The success of this unit starts up front with standout tackle Quinnen Williams, with Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis handling the end spots. Mack Wilson, Dylan Moses and Christian Miller lead the way at linebacker, with the secondary anchored by All-American safety Deionte Thompson. While Alabama’s defense has been excellent on the stat sheet, this unit is more vulnerable in the secondary than it has been in recent years.
How will Alabama’s defense choose to attack Oklahoma’s offense? Murray’s mobility and ability to create plays with his legs outside of the pocket will be an enormous challenge. The Crimson Tide is the best defense the Sooners have faced in 2018. However, Oklahoma’s offense is also the best unit Alabama’s defense has played this fall.
A few things to watch: Can Oklahoma win third downs and convert scoring drives into touchdowns? And most importantly, can the Sooners continue to play mistake-free ball when it comes to turnovers?
2. Alabama’s Offense Against Oklahoma’s Defense
On paper, this is the biggest mismatch in the Orange Bowl. Alabama’s offense averages 47.9 points a game and 7.9 yards a play, while the Sooners are giving up 32.4 points a contest.
While Tagovailoa’s emergence as the team’s No. 1 quarterback has allowed the offense to become more prolific through the air, this team is still capable of chewing up large chunks on the ground. Alabama’s offensive line won’t have guard Deonte Brown due to suspension, but this unit has plenty of depth to navigate his absence. The Crimson Tide are averaging 5.3 yards per rush, with Damien Harris (771 yards) leading the attack. Najee Harris (679) and Josh Jacobs (495) will also see plenty of carries on Saturday night. Stopping the run has been a challenge for Oklahoma this season. The Sooners are giving up four yards a rush and 156.7 yards a game on the ground but opponents only have two rushes of 40 or more yards against this unit.
In his first year as Alabama’s starter, Tagovailoa threw for 3,353 yards and 37 touchdowns and connected on 67.7 percent of his throws. The sophomore is adept at placing the ball in the right spots for his receivers, giving them an opportunity to create plays after the catch. Tagovailoa has one of the nation’s deepest receiving corps at his disposal and will be a handful for Oklahoma’s secondary to stop. Jerry Jeudy (59 catches for 1,103 yards), Henry Ruggs (17.2 ypc), Jaylen Waddle (41 catches), DeVonta Smith (30) and tight end Irv Smith (38) are all capable of scoring from anywhere on the field with big plays.
Getting consistent stops against Alabama’s offense is going to be a significant challenge for Oklahoma’s defense. The Sooners rank 85th nationally in pass efficiency defense, and the secondary has allowed 15 plays of 40 yards or more. While this unit is going to give up some yards and points, it has to find ways to limit the big plays and create a couple of turnovers.
3. Timely Stops, Havoc Plays and Turnovers
We mentioned this throughout the two previous sections, but with two high-powered offenses, this game is likely to be decided on which defense can get enough timely stops and create a few turnovers or havoc plays. Oklahoma’s defense allowed four of its last five opponents to eclipse 40 or more points but did just enough in games against West Virginia and Texas to hold on for the win. That’s the type of performance Riley’s group will need on Saturday. Can the Sooners generate a takeaway or two to give Murray a short field? Additionally, can Oklahoma hold in the red zone and force Alabama to take field goals on scoring drives?
When Alabama’s defense is on the field, a similar theme is likely to play out. Can the Crimson Tide expect to keep Murray in check for all four quarters? Probably not. So it’s important for Alabama to win third downs, force the Sooners into field goals and create havoc up front with the line with sacks and tackles for a loss. And if the Crimson Tide win the turnover battle with a plus-two or a plus-three margin, Oklahoma is going to face a steep climb to keep it close.
Must-see matchup. That’s the easiest way to describe this game on Saturday night. Both offenses are simply too talented to be held in check for all four quarters. However, there’s a clear gap in the defensive ability between these two teams. While Alabama’s secondary isn’t as dominant as some previous versions for Saban, the Crimson Tide are capable of getting a couple of stops to swing this game in their favor. Expect both Murray and Tagovailoa to deliver an entertaining performance, but Alabama’s defense does enough in the second half to lift the Crimson Tide to a victory and another trip to the national championship game.