Despite the big gap between championship weekend and the College Football Playoff semifinals, this game really snuck up many of us. Here to discuss this weekend’s game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Alabama Crimson Tide is Erik Evans of Roll ‘Bama Roll — SB Nation’s Alabama site.
Tua’s ankle injury has been a hot topic for quite some time, but how does that seem to be coming along? What would you say are the chances of him being at close to full strength?
When Jonah Williams first stepped on Tua’s lower leg in the 4th quarter of the SEC Championship, it seemed like his season was done. And, looking at the ghastly replay, I’m still not certain how he escaped a horrible fracture. But, being a freakish 20-year old, and aided by the world’s best and most revolutionary orthopedic surgical group, he was under the knife and back on his feet in three days. Just two weeks after surgery, he was dropping back and doing footwork drills with Jalen Hurts. How that affects him is anyone’s guess. Hurts is thought of as the running QB, but the Tide offense does run a significant number of RPOs for Tagovailao. When Jalen Hurts had a similar injury and the same tightrope surgery, he was very limited for over a month. He had surgery on 10/22, and the first game where he was fully healthy again was 12/5, in the SEC Championship game. Tua seems to be coming along a lot quicker than Hurts did, but you have to think he still won’t be at 100%. The offense will have to give him a clean pocket, which limits some offensive options.
But, even if Tua is not at 100% -- and he hasn’t been since the Arkansas game in early October, or he is too gimpy to go 60 minutes, I understand his backup is pretty good.
What are you anticipating for the crowd split in Miami?
Both fan bases travel really well, even to far-flung venues like the Orange Bowl. So, when you’re speaking of the distances involved here, I don’t think there’s a decided advantage either way, in terms of proximity. But, money very much may play a part. For Alabama, it is the fifth straight Playoff appearance, and this one comes on the heels of an SEC Championship Game appearance that Georgia fans made quite expensive. The economics are such that to travel from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta to Miami (and hopefully San Jose,) all in the space of 32 days, over the Holidays, is simply beyond the means of most fans, even hardcore ones with significant disposable incomes. The state of Oklahoma isn’t exactly swimming in money either, and like Alabama, the Sooner faithful have had to make quite a few of these trips. Most fans I know put in for tickets to both games, and if they won the CFP Finals lottery, declined Orange Bowl tickets. It’s a risk they take, sure. But, they’re hedging on the favorite. For OU fans, this is the last game chance they’ll get to see Ford, Murray, and Brown (if he plays at all) -- whereas Alabama’s offensive stars are mostly underclassmen. This isn’t our last rodeo with this group. Throw in the historical Big 8 bowl ties to the Orange Bowl, good ole ‘Bama Fatigue, and long-standing enmity from Miami locals against Alabama, and I suspect the crowd will be pro-Sooners, but not likely not overwhelmingly so.
‘Bama has its fair share of offensive weapons, particularly at receiver. Other than Jerry Jeudy, which receiver is the biggest difference maker?
I think you have to keep an eye on Jaylen Waddle. The do-it-all freshman is ridiculously fleet of foot, has great open field moves, soft hands, and is unafraid to go into traffic to make a clutch catch. He’s also a very dangerous punt returner, and has the capacity to change a game if he gets (or manufactures) a seam in the defense. He has come up big in nearly every game this season, and I wouldn’t expect him to drop off now. He’s a baby Percy Harvin, and I would have his cheetah babies.
Quinnen Williams is about as dominant as any defensive lineman the college football world has seen in quite some time. What makes him so special, and is there a good NFL player comparison to make here?
The comparison has been made to Ndamukong Suh, and I think that’s right. In 2018, Q had the best season outside of an interior defensive lineman since Suh’s 2009 campaign. The difference is that Suh took home a lot of hardware for his efforts and was rewarded for being one of the most dominant players in the country, including finishing third in the Heisman balloting -- Williams didn’t even make it to the stage. He’s unblockable. Jonah Williams said it best: it’s like trying to block a bar of soap. The fact that Williams began his career as a defensive end has given him an entirely unique skills set -- it’s rare to find a player who’s dominating enough at the point of attack to command doubles but has such polished two-gap DE rush skills while playing the nose. He’s a mismatch against anyone in the country one-on-one. I doubt that OU will be the first team to try it for 60 minutes. The beneficiary of the doubles on Williams? Keep an eye on Isaiah Buggs -- he’s quietly amassed 9.5 sacks and had a tremendous game against Georgia, even playing on a hyper-extended knee (a knee that is still a little limited, I add.)
Alabama’s defense, as usual, is incredibly impressive. However, is there anything that has made it tick?
It hasn’t been as consistent as you’d want to see. The group started slow this season, and practically had to learn how to play zone from scratch. There are still some warts to work around -- the linebackers aren’t particularly good in coverage; the Tide is down one safety and its other shutdown corner, as Saivion Smith hasn’t had the season we’d hope replacing Trevon Diggs. But, there have been some bright spots. I think you have to point to the emergence of the secondary. Patrick Surtain Jr. on the outside is as pro-ready a cover corner as you’ll see for his age, and teams have largely stopped targeting the true freshman. Deionte Thompson at free safety had the All-American season everyone anticipated. And one of the true revelations has been the emergence of nickel back Shyheim Carter. In Saban’s defensive scheme, the roving Star has a lot of responsibilities. And Carter has emerged as a poor man’s Minkah Fitzpatrick there. It has made the Alabama pass defense so much better down the stretch. If there is any one player to point to for the defense’s second half success, Carter is as good an answer as any.
What would you say is the Alabama fan base’s general attitude towards Oklahoma and it’s current style of play?
Let’s get the first part out of the way. I don’t think there’s any particular animus towards OU or its fanbase. There isn’t the historical beef and intense dislike the Tide has for other blue bloods (looking at you Notre Dame,) nor the historical connections you see with a team like USC, nor the simmering recent hatred of a trash team and trash fans like the Buckeyes. Like most blue bloods, it’s more game-respect-game. I wouldn’t expect the two groups to have any major beef this week.
The second part is a bit longer and, like most long stories, is a bit more complicated.
Let’s talk about the Big 12.
Taking the temperature of SEC fans, is disdain too strong of a word for the Big 12? I don’t know a single fan base in the SEC that likes or respects the brand of 7-on-7 flag football that the Big 12 has turned into. That’s not to say they don’t recognize excellent offensive schemes, or stand-out talent, or that Lincoln Riley isn’t a very good up-and-coming young coach. But, disdain is plainly the collective reaction around these parts. When you plan for both teams to score on nearly every possession, when the DBs are the size of a peewee punter, when players rack up monster numbers throwing against air, when the tackling is so disinterested and bereft of physicality, when defensive schemes are an afterthought and defensive coaching so half-assed, it’s just boring. It feels like an NBA game -- if most contests are decided down the stretch by a possession or two, it’s not exciting, it’s contrived and makes you wonder what was going on the other 58 minutes.
There may be outlying Gump opinions, and folks are free to add those, but I’ve honestly not seen them. Hell, I’ve not seen one countervailing opinion to the contrary.
Still, I’m not gonna slag on the Big 12 and leave it at that. Let’s have a real-talk moment, and this is where the complicated part comes in: It should be pointed out that Bob Stoops is the one opposing coach probably most responsible for modernizing Alabama football (with a nod to Urban Meyer, and to a lesser extent Hugh Freeze). When these teams last met, Alabama’s defensive scheme and personnel were very much a product of an era in transition. The inside linebackers were prototype thumpers. The defensive line personnel had defined roles. There were true in-the-box safeties. But, when faced against offenses that were built to exploit that traditional way of thinking, the weaknesses of philosophy in an emerging offensive era showed.
Thus, in 2013-2015 Alabama had to completely scrap its recruiting philosophy to better matchup with air raid offenses and counter HUNHS teams. And you see that now with a move towards more position-less athletes. Gone are the old-school 3-4 ILBs like Reggie Ragland, and in their place are human missiles and athletic freaks like Dylan Moses and Reuben Foster. Minkah Fitzpatrick played literally every position in the defensive backfield. Jared Mayden has done the same. In addition to the above Quinnen Williams, Raekwon Davis at 6’7” 316-pounds started his career on the inside, but has now been the starting weakside defensive end for two seasons. And it’s not just a big body: he had 8.5 sacks last season.
It’s not a coincidence either that, having graduated most of a pro offense in 2013, Saban hired Lane Kiffin and moved to the spread in various iterations beginning in 2014. Alabama has now run one for the better part of 2014, 2016-2018 (2015 was a bit of an outlier, and if when have Derrick Henry, I think you can understand why.) But, I don’t think that evolution fully happens with such urgency, or is ever fully committed-to, if Alabama had not come up short against teams like OSU and Oklahoma. For a decade, Saban always said he wanted to hit 38 points. I think that number now is closer to 50, while still maintaining a defensive imprimatur.
TL; DR -- the 2013 Sugar Bowl revealed some flaws in the armor (and recruiting misses) against emerging offensive schemes, as well as put the nail in the coffin of a long-standing conventional preference for a traditional 31 West Coast scheme. The rebuild now reveals much greater emphasis on athleticism on defense, and an evolving pro spread with some Air Raid and zone-read elements.
So, the team that Oklahoma will face on Saturday is the end product of a recruiting revamp and philosophical retooling that the Sooners are greatly responsible for creating in the first place.
Like Oklahoma, Alabama’s offensive line was a finalist for the 800-pound Joe Moore Award. Who stands out in that unit, and what is the unit’s best attribute?
There are two things that really stand out on this offensive line. The first is depth: the first team has two veteran All-Americans and yet the second team doesn’t see much drop off. Saban spent the prior three seasons loading up on the line depth, and it shows. By way of illustration, RT Matt Womack and RT Jedrick Wills are 1 and 1A locking down Tua’s blindside. Though Wills is the more athletic player, and Womack is the superior mauler, that position battle was only decided in the Fall when Womack was injured -- and he was the incumbent starter. The second is how much better the line played when LG Deonte Brown is in the lineup -- his presence solidified the left side, and that became the preferred side to run the ball. Unfortunately, it took almost half a season for him to earn the start and then for the group to gel. He’s also fought some injuries off and on down the stretch, and has been in the doghouse a few times. Most recently, he had the dread violation of team rules come down 48 hours before the team flew to Miami. He will not be playing in this game. Lester Cotton is experienced and is a solid player in his own right, but when he’s wedged between Ross Pierschbacher and Jonah Williams, the talent disparity is noticeable.
What’s your favorite Jason Isbell song, and why?
”Elephant” because, truly, no one dies with dignity. There is nothing dignified about cancer or what it does to your body, your spirit, those around you, or your mental and physical and financial resources. It’s an ignominious end for we hairless monkeys who get such a short time on this world to carve out some meaning from so little time. All we’ve got at the end of the day are the thousand tiny triumphs and the thousand little defeats to enjoy or bear through as we go along. I think he does a great job of setting the profoundness of nonexistence against a canvas of the mundane. If that’s not life and death, much less great art, I’m not sure what is.
How does Nick Saban‘s legacy compare to Bear Bryant’s at this point? Will Saban ever be seen as that type of icon?
C’mon, now. I know you just want me to plug your podcast! (And I will, it was a lot of fun -- really good conversation with you folks). Anyway, the answer to your question touches a lot of stuff: culture, generation, segregation, Xs and Os, surprising shortcomings, and more. It’s far too long to type and no one wants to read a think piece. Just hit the handy link above.
Editor’s note: Not my intention, but I’m glad he did it! ;)
Who would win in a cage match - Bear Bryant at 50 or Nick Saban at 50?
Bear Bryant died when he was 69 years old, and those weren’t highway miles either. Meanwhile, Saban is a well-kept 67, and has been athletic his entire life. But, don’t let the paunch, chainsmoking, and permanent scent of Johnny Walker Black confuse you: Bryant was mean as hell -- you may have heard about him wrestling a bear? He grew up poor in Nowhere Arkansas, spent his childhood farming cotton, was a WWII veteran, had the ability to terrify grown men, was an All-SEC end at Alabama, and once famously played an entire game against Tennessee on a broken leg. What I’m saying is that Bryant would wreck Saban, and I don’t think it would be particularly close; not at 15 or 50. It also helps he was 6’3”.
Does Alabama cover the spread in this one?
I’ve cranked this one about a million ways from Sunday, and I think they do. There’s a sense of being slighted on this team, and if there’s any thing that Saban uses to motivate Alabama these days it’s that players’ accomplishments and the team are not being given the respect they feel is earned. In this case, he needn’t even throw up locker room material -- the team took Murray’s Heisman very personally: from the backup punter to middle linebacker to Tua himself. I think you see a dialed-in bunch. It’s not that structural stuff, though. The far greater reason is that I just don’t see Oklahoma’s defense making stops against a healthy Alabama offense. The Sooners will put up points, and even if Alabama jumps out to a large lead at some point, OU is going to keep coming and keep taking shots. But Alabama should still cover this one: The Tide’s margin over ranked teams this season is by 22, 29, 29, 24, 31 and 7 points.
What do you hate most about Auburn and it’s fans?
That we have to acknowledge them, frankly. Historically, Tennessee has always been the bigger rivalry -- we don’t break out the cigars for Iron Bowls. A lot of that history and sense of moment from the Third Saturday has been lost over the past 18-20 years as first Alabama, and then Tennessee, started sucking. Throw in the fact that Auburn began its period of fielding on-again-off-again powerful teams in the mid-80s, and far too many people take the game too seriously. I’d be happy throwing them on the rotational schedule and giving the Polytechnic Teachers College the proper respect they deserve: just another SEC team on the schedule.
Do you have any closing comments or remarks?
For most of my adult life, I have wanted to see these two teams play when the stakes are meaningful, when both teams are off probation, and as mostly healthy/un-suspended as can be expected. That simply has not been the case in any of the prior three meetings. Nor is that a new thing. Interestingly, the teams have only met five times. Bear went only faced OU twice and wnet 1-0-1 against the Sooners during his long tenure. You’d think that’s anomalous, until you look at the graphical wins chart. There simply haven’t been many periods in the modern age where the two teams have been good at the same time. This may be the first time since those Bud/Chuck vs. Bear meetings where the right time and right place and right teams converge. And I’m looking forward to it.