Well, Sooner Nation, the matchup the college football world’s been waiting for has finally arrived. You could almost say it’s snuck up on most of us, with the last four weeks of hype and speculation flying by with the quickness of a Kyler Murray scramble. In just a matter of hours, Murray, the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner, will lead the fourth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners into the Orange Bowl to face Tua Tagovailoa and the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff headlining semifinal.
Head on down to the comments section for the game thread, where we’ll be asking questions, making predictions and discussing the day’s action with y’all.
Location: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, Fla.
TV: ESPN 7:00 p.m. CT (Command Center on ESPN2, Coaches on ESPN News)
Live Stream: WatchESPN (multiple viewing options, including the MegaCast synced with the OU radio broadcast)
TV Commentary: Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Laura Rutledge, Maria Taylor
Betting Line: Alabama -14
The College Football Playoff advanced tale of the tape, via SB Nation
What can I say about this hyped matchup that hasn’t already been discussed and dissected by every expert and fan on TV, radio and online? We know both offenses are indisputably the two best in the nation. We know this matchup features the top two finishers in one of the closest Heisman Trophy races ever. We know that Tagovailoa’s entitled Bama teammates feel slighted by their quarterback’s runner-up finish to the Sooner signal caller on said Heisman night.
We, of course, know all about how bad Oklahoma’s defense — the one glaring outlier in an otherwise even matchup — is and has been for the last few seasons. And we also know Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide’s record and reputation are college football’s standard of excellence for the last decade.
Loaded with elite talent and depth at every position across the field and now featuring one of the most prolific passers in the sport’s history, this season’s Bama squad truly could claim the title of greatest college football team ever assembled. We saw the writing on the wall when a freshman Tagovailoa came in to spell then-starter Jalen Hurts in last season’s National Championship game, leading the Tide to a thrilling comeback win over Georgia. That win kicked off the road to Tua’s monstrous sophomore campaign spearheading the nation’s most fearsome collection of talent college football has possibly ever assembled.
So, the Sooners have no shot this evening in the Orange Bowl, right? As Lee Corso would say (although not likely today), “not so fast, my friend”. While Bama on paper and on season’s performance certainly warrants the 14-point favorite tag entering this contest, the nation’s most explosive offense on the other side — possibly the best the sport has ever seen — certainly has what it takes to perhaps pull the mammoth upset. In order for this to happen, for starters Kyler Murray will need to have a Vince Young-like 2006 Rose Bowl performance, while the OU defense, which is nowhere near the realm of the unit 2005 Texas fielded against mighty USC in that similarly hyped contest, will need to channel its’ inner Alabama — or just pray.
While the dazzling Kyler Murray may have the capability of taking over like VY in 2006, Oklahoma appears it will have to play a perfect game to beat Alabama. The Sooners cannot commit any turnovers on offense and must be aggressive and disciplined on defense to at least create the chances needed to force a turnover or two when the Tide have possession.
OU could theoretically keep it close by just getting stops or forcing field goals on Bama drives, but turnovers will have to happen if OU is to sustain the effort and pull the upset. The offensive line must start strong and sustain pressure on the beastly Bama front four for a full 60 minutes and not be countered like Georgia eventually did in last season’ CFP semifinal in Pasadena. Given the Tide’s defense will get at least a stop or two, how will Oklahoma answer with a defense that is the nation’s most talked-about Achilles’ heel.
The obvious outlier in the two teams’ resumes is easily the Oklahoma defense, porous at best especially through the air. The Tide, second only to OU nationally in offensive rankings, are sure to feast all night long on the Sooners’ undersized, overmatched, and oft-outschemed secondary — especially if defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill doesn’t dial up consistent pressure.
It’s possible that facing a likely less-than-100 percent Tagovailoa, who is still recovering from the high ankle sprain suffered in SEC Championship, the OU defense could disrupt the timing of a rhythm-based Bama offense, which is more reminiscent of a Big 12 team than its’ usual brand of conventional offensive football, after the long layoff and four weeks to prepare. If the game turns into a shootout, you have to like Kyler Murray and OU’s chances over a possibly hobbled Tagovailoa.
But the Tide certainly run the ball well, too, and could play ball control to limit the prolific OU attack’s opportunities, a la Texas in the Cotton Bowl and Army in September. And you can figure the Bama defense getting a few crucial stops along with a forced turnover or two, ultimately proving to be the difference in the ball game.
For the Sooners to have a shot, they must out-Clemson Alabama. In Deshaun Watson’s legendary performance in the 2016 National Championship Game, in which the Tigers outlasted the Tide 35-31, Clemson snapped the ball nearly 100 times through 60 minutes. Oklahoma is certainly capable of doing that on most teams, perhaps even Alabama. But unfortunately on the other side of the ball, the Sooners feature nothing close to what Clemson’s defense was that season.
Finally, this is the first team Nick Saban has had that appears to have the juice to beat a spread offense led by a dual-threat quarterback because of the presence of Tua Tagovailoa. The Golden State Warriors won 73 games in the season before Kevin Durant joined them. Since then, they’ve lost just a single game in the last two NBA Finals combined. Tua, like Durant, has made an already-great team into one that is truly unstoppable. Perhaps Kyler Murray is the LeBron James of college football, going up against the Tide’s equivalent of the Warriors, who now boast the missing cog in establishing them among history’s greatest — a truly scary guy throwing lasers all over the field in Tagovailoa.
This edition of Alabama is the most complete team I feel I’ve ever seen, worthy of comparison to 2004-05 USC and 2001 Miami. They can give it to you any which way on offense with a healthy Tagovailoa and feature a defense loaded with future NFL draft picks that are fully capable of disrupting even the most prolific offense the sport may have ever featured in 2018 Oklahoma, led by the otherworldly Murray.
Prior to this season, I picked a No. 4 OU to fall short against a top-ranked Alabama squad led by Tagovailoa in the staff’s preseason predictions. I see no reason to reverse that pick, and I’ve never wished to be wrong this much in my life. Ever.
I think the Sooners start strong with pace and efficiency, perhaps even tied or leading at halftime, similar to last season against Georgia. The Tide adjust by halftime and outlast OU in a wild, intense and high-flying showdown in South Florida.
Score prediction: Bama 52, OU 42