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Orange Bowl 2018: Oklahoma vs. Alabama Preview, Storylines, and Predictions

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The Oklahoma Sooners and the Alabama Crimson Tide square off in a primetime Orange Bowl matchup that has college football fans across the country juiced up.

Heisman Trophy Presentation Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

After close to a four-week layoff, the 12-1 Oklahoma Sooners will return to the field on Saturday night against the 13-0 Alabama Crimson Tide. On the line at the Orange Bowl is a berth in the CFP National Championship game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara Calif. While Oklahoma will be playing for the chance to make its first title game appearance since 2009, Alabama will be seeking its seventh title game appearance since 2009. In that time span, Alabama has won five national titles under legendary coach Nick Saban. All that is left is for both teams and fan bases to prepare for Saturday night.

Date: Saturday December 29th

Time & TV: 7 P.M. CT on ESPN

Spread: Alabama -14

Oklahoma Depth Chart/Game Notes

Getting to Know the Alabama Crimson Tide

Orange Bowl Q&A with Roll ‘Bama Roll

Key Storylines

Alabama Suspensions

When Alabama was set to leave for Miami early in the week, we learned that three players would be suspended for the game and would not travel with the team due to an undisclosed violation of team rules. The three players include starting LG Deonte Brown, reserve offensive lineman Elliot Baker, and tight end Kedrick James. Although James appeared in five games for the Crimson Tide, he did not log a reception and can be considered a minor contributor along with Eliot Baker. The player the Tide will miss when it comes to these suspensions is Deonte Brown. Brown played well at the starting left guard spot over the last five games for the Crimson Tide and is a mountain of a man (6’4 344) who has been instrumental for the tide in both the running game and the passing game.

With Brown out, the Oklahoma front seven might be able to generate more pressure on Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa from the interior. Look for Curtis Bolton, Caleb Kelly, Kenneth Murrary, Nevile Gallimore to go after that interior left side of the Bama line with different blitzes and stunts. The absence of Brown may also slow down the Alabama rushing attack. The Crimson Tide boast an impressive trio of backs in Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs. While I expect Nick Saban to have a talented replacement ready to step in at the LG spot, continuity is always key on an offensive line. It will be interesting to see if the Sooner defense can exploit the Alabama offensive line now that it has a new starter in the mix.

The Health of Marquise Brown and Tua Tagovailoa

Ever since conference championship weekend, the health of these two stars has been discussed ad nauseum. While there has not been any official confirmation, Marquise Brown stated today at the Orange Bowl Media Day that he anticipates playing. Brown has been seen practicing with the team this week, but it is unclear how close he is to 100% with his foot injury. In the event that he is not able to play, Oklahoma will obviously go into this game at a serious disadvantage. Brown stretches defense like no other player in college football and by doing so creates space for everyone around him on the offense. If Brown is able to play but is hobbled, that could still help by garnering the attention of the Alabama secondary for at least a portion of the game. Ideally, Brown will be at least close to full health on Saturday night and put on a memorable performance.

As for Tua, his ankle appears to be getting closer to full health. Luckily for Alabama, he doesn’t really need to be at 100 percent to be effective. Tua was hobbled by a sore knee at multiple points over the course of the season but still managed to be successful. The true test for Tua will be how his ankle feels after taking a couple hits from the Oklahoma defense. If Tua struggles early on and appears hobbled, Saban will likely not hesitate to put in backup QB Jalen Hurts.

In contrast to Tua, Hurts is a running QB who puts pressure on a defense by being able to make a play with his legs at any moment. As we saw against Sam Ehlinger back in October, this Oklahoma defense struggles against physical running quarterbacks. While Hurts tends to do much more on the perimeter as a scrambler than the aforementioned Ehlinger, he’s also a threat up the middle on designed runs or in the read option game.

Unfortunately for the Oklahoma defense, Hurts is a much more dynamic runner than Ehlinger, so the Sooners certainly need to be prepared for what he brings to the table. While Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray claimed that the Sooners have a specific Hurts game plan in place earlier this week, it is always a challenge to adjust to a new QB on the fly. The Alabama quarterback situation will be intriguing to watch come Saturday.

Third-Down Defense

After highlighting this statistic during my Big 12 title game preview a few weeks ago, I thought it would be important to revisit it this week. While I went into this endeavor thinking that Oklahoma would be slightly improved in their third down defensive numbers following their win against Texas, they actually got worse! The Oklahoma Sooner defense went from 108th in the FBS before the Big 12 title game to 112th. Oklahoma defense has allowed its opponents to convert around 45 percent of the time in third-down situations, and

Not surprisingly, the Alabama offense does a phenomenal job of converting on third down. They are ranked 2nd in the FBS behind only Army with a third down conversion rate of 52%. This creates a strength-against-weakness matchup in favor of the Crimson Tide. Third-down defense will be even more important against Alabama than it was against Texas, as Nick Saban is the kind of coach that likes to trust his defense and punt the ball. The numbers bear this out as Alabama tied Texas A&M with an FBS-low nine fourth down attempts on the year. While this number is also a reflection of how good the Alabama offense was, it’s still a good indication of the trust in his defense. Will that change when facing this Oklahoma offense? In an effort to keep up, will he elect to go for it on fourth down when he otherwise wouldn’t?

Since Alabama will likely opt to punt the ball or kick a field goal if stopped on third down, the Sooner defense absolutely has to get some third-down stops, particularly on third-and-long. This will give Kyler Murray and Co. more opportunities against an Alabama defense that is one of the best in the nation. If Alabama continues to convert on key third-down plays throughout the game, it will be a long night for Sooner fans.

Quinnen Williams vs. the Oklahoma Running Game

While the Sooners are perfectly capable of getting in a shootout through the air, they are at their best when they have total offensive balance. This means running the ball effectively against a stout Alabama front seven led by DT Quinnen Williams. Williams boasts exceptional speed, power, agility and technique to go along with a 6’4 289 frame. If he declares for the 2019 NFL Draft, he is projected to be a top-five pick. Williams has the ability to slow down the Oklahoma rushing attack and cause fits for the Oklahoma offensive line. He will also have the help of fellow defensive linemen Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis. Davis and Buggs are future NFL players who can easily take advantage when Williams gets doubled.

Luckily for Oklahoma, this is a good-on-good matchup, as Williams will have to line up against the best offensive line in the country on Saturday. During the lead-up to the Orange Bowl, the Oklahoma offensive line was presented with the Joe Moore Award, given to the best OL unit in the nation. While this award was a huge accomplishment for Bill Bedenbaugh, Bobby Evans, Dru Samia, Creed Humphrey, Ben Powers and Cody Ford, the unit can’t afford to rest on its laurels.

Behind the offensive line, both Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon should be healthy and ready to go. Brooks came on during the second half of the season, while Sermonwho should be at full strength after the break — has been a reliable power RB for two season now. After suffering a high-ankle sprain against TCU on October 20th, Sermon has been playing at less than 100%. The combination of Sermon and Brooks will be crucial against the Alabama defense if Oklahoma wants to have a chance in this one. I expect them to be able to complete passes on this Alabama defense, but a strong rushing attack could change the complexion of the game.

Saban vs. Riley

The two coaches in this CFP semifinal matchup are geniuses in their own unique ways. Saban is a defensive guru known for being cranky with the media, while Riley is an offensive guru known for bringing a youthful approached to every aspect of his position. While Saban is arguably the greatest college football coach of all time, Riley is a dynamic young coach still trying to prove himself on the big stage. The matchup between these two great football minds will be one to watch for sure. Last year against Georgia, Lincoln Riley got a way from himself in the second half after Oklahoma had a 31-17 lead at halftime, throwing out a mixture of conservative play calling and unique wrinkles, both of which essentially took the ball out of the hands of Baker Mayfield. I am sure that Riley has learned from last year’s CFP Semifinal loss, but he will need to be on point in a chess match against Nick Saban.

My guess? Riley attacks Alabama’s linebackers — who have been vulnerable in coverage all season — early and often. I’d then expect Saban to make an adjustment in an effort to minimize that damage, leaving Riley to adjust on the fly. It took a bit too long for Riley to adapt to UGA’s halftime adjustments in last season’s Rose Bowl, but if he succeeds this time, OU has a shot.

Prediction

While a low scoring, grind it out game would be less stressful to watch, no way that happens on Saturday. I think this one turns into an absolute shootout where Oklahoma is able to outlast Alabama at the end. It will certainly be an uphill battle, but the Sooners are battle-tested and want to atone for letting one get away in the 2018 Rose Bowl last year. In the end, they’ll be able to get a few timely stops and perhaps even force a turnover or two.

Oklahoma 50, Alabama 42