Orange Bowl preview: Can Oklahoma outgun powerhouse Alabama?
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Orange Bowl
No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners (12-1, 9-1 Big 12) vs. No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (13-0, 9-0 SEC)
When: Saturday, Dec. 29, 8 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, Fla.
Odds: Alabama -14
Over/Under: 79

Tale of the tape

2018 Stats Oklahoma Alabama
Points Per Game 49.5 (1) 47.9 (2)
Points Allowed/Game 32.4 (96) 14.8 (4)
Rush Yards/Game 253.9 (11) 202.2 (37)
Pass Yards/Game 324.0 (8) 325.5 (7)
Total Yards/Game 577.9 (1) 527.6 (7)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 156.7 (53) 117.0 (19)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 291.4 (128) 178.4 (13)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 448.1 (108) 295.4 (9)
Third-Down Offense 51.2% (5) 52.8% (2)
Third-Down Defense 45.2% (115) 30.9% (9)
Red-Zone Offense 90.5% (13) 83.8% (67)
Red-Zone Defense 93.6% (126) 66.7% (3)
Team Sacks/Game 2.15 (64) 3.23 (7)
Turnover Differential -2 (T-82) +8 (T-16)

(Division I rank in parentheses)

Season review


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Alabama can pride itself on boasting the second-best offense in the country. Unfortunately, it’s still a significant way behind the Sooners' attack.

Oklahoma ranks first in the nation in yards per play (8.6), averaging a full yard more than the second-placed Crimson Tide. Kyler Murray and his cohorts averaged 49.5 points per game this season; what even is this sport anymore?

To put things into perspective, the gap between the two offenses is equivalent to the distance between Bama (second in S&P+) and Ohio, the ninth-best offense by S&P+ this season. Not Ohio State; Ohio.

Think about how crazy that is. In any normal year, this Alabama offense would be the runaway best, an all-time great group with a historically strong quarterback.

And yet, impossibly, Oklahoma’s is better.

For as good as the Sooners' offense is, though, their defense is almost equally as bad. Let’s take a look at some numbers:

  • 89th in defensive S&P+
  • 93rd in opponents’ yards per play (5.9)
  • 116th in third-down success rate
  • 115th in sack rate
  • 106th in completion percentage against

Yikes! Oklahoma’s defense is legitimately one of the very worst in the Power Five, if not the country. It struggles against the run; it’s a disaster against the pass. Lincoln Riley booted defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to the curb following the team's only loss of the season at Red River.

Changing coordinators midstream has had little impact. If anything, one might argue the Sooners have been worse since Riley dumped Stoops in favor of Ruffin McNeill.

The only important category that McNeil’s group ranks anywhere near the top 50 is in average third-down distance, and opponents still convert third downs at an astonishing 46 percent clip.

Oklahoma’s offense is the most enjoyable, explosive experience in college football. Can it do it on the grandest stage against a gnarly defense? And will it be enough to overcome all the issues on the other side of the ball?


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Where to begin with Nick Saban’s latest and greatest team? Just when it seemed Alabama could not get any more dominant, Saban cranked it up a notch, somehow fielding his best squad to date.

The 2018 edition of the Crimson Tide is unique. An offensive overhaul - blending spread-option rushing concepts with Air Raid passing principles - and a truly elite, dual-threat quarterback has made Bama damn near unstoppable.

Alabama ranks in the top 10 in offensive and defensive S&P+: second on offense and eighth on defense. It's won every game this season, minus the SEC Championship game, by at least 20 points. Not since Yale in the 1800s have we witnessed a juggernaut like this.

Tua Tagovailoa's offense is second in success rate and explosive plays, trailing only Oklahoma. The Tide are as strong as ever on defense. Some early-season issues with explosive plays are no more. They pressure opposing quarterbacks on a whopping 40 percent of snaps and rank second in sack rate.

Elite programs typically trend one way or the other: either they rank in the top five in offense or defense. If the other jumps into the top 15, you’re a national title contender. Ranking in the top two in both is extraordinary.

Still, that title game against Georgia should give Oklahoma some hope. The Bulldogs pushed Saban and Co. to the brink. Tagovailoa never looked right. Were it not for a career-best performance from Jalen Hurts and a questionable call from Kirby Smart late in the game, Georgia would have won.

Oklahoma isn’t Georgia, though. It will have an uphill task slowing the Saban Machine down.

Players to watch

Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray

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It’s the battle we’ve all been waiting for: Murray’s improvisational brilliance against Nick Saban’s carefully choreographed defense. The Heisman Trophy winner is one of the truly unstoppable players in modern college football history. There is no strategy that can take away both his arm and his legs. You can only hope to contain Murray and limit his production.

The only way the Crimson Tide can slow him down is to dominate the line of scrimmage. We’ve certainly seen that from Bama before. Even against some of the top offensive lines in the country, Saban’s men have been able to dictate terms up front.

It won’t be easy, though. Oklahoma’s offensive line is among the best around - it kept Murray clean on 78.8 percent of his dropbacks in 2018.

Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray

Keep an eye on Murray's alignments throughout the game. The Sooners linebacker has been consistently overwhelmed this season, particularly by linemen climbing up to the second level. He likes to take risks and attempt to undercut blocks. Too often, however, he finds himself out of position.

Alabama will surely be looking to isolate and attack Murray in space, both as a run defender and in coverage.

Oklahoma doesn’t have the defensive horses to keep up with the Tide’s offensive firepower. But if the group is to pull off the upset, it needs Murray to play the game of his life.

Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa

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Which Tagovailoa will we get? That’s the great question heading into the playoff. If we get the Tua of the regular season, who posted 37 touchdowns to four interceptions and looked like the greatest collegiate quarterback we’ve seen in a long, long time, Oklahoma stands no chance. But if we get the banged-up, bad-decision-making one we saw against Georgia, the Sooners have a shot.

Alabama LB Mack Wilson

You know all about Quinnen Williams. So, let’s focus on Bama’s top off-ball linebacker. Wilson is the man tasked with trying to solve the riddle of Riley’s defense. No team in the country makes as many checks at the line or will run as many Rat assignments (coach lingo for freelancing) as Alabama.

Saban empowers his Mike linebacker to make sight adjustments at the line of scrimmage, giving him the ability to switch the entire play or a solo job.

Wilson is a master at sniffing out plays before they are even run:

It will be interesting to see how much Bama attempts to "spy" (deploy a single defender to mirror) Kyler Murray. And if Saban does, will he opt for Wilson or Dylan Moses as the lead investigator?

Biggest mismatch

Alabama's run game vs. Oklahoma's linebackers

Oklahoma’s defense has been fundamentally awful all season long. Tackling in space, positional leverage, and being gap sound are the basic tenets of any good defense. Oklahoma fails at them all.

Two defenders will routinely attempt to plug the same gap, even in the absence of fancy motions or creative play designs:

Sure, this group has some good athletes. But over and over again they fail to execute the little things that win games.

That problem will never be more pronounced than when going up against Alabama’s offensive line. Forget the star power of Jonah Williams and Ross Pierschbacher (two future first-round picks), the entire group works in sync, downloading the movements of every defender in an instant and creating a relentless surge.

Two of Alabama’s running backs are averaging over 6 yards per carry this campaign, and all three routinely get to the second level untouched. Once there, Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Joshua Jacobs can each run over or around oncoming linebackers and rotating safeties.

To have any shot of slowing down this rushing attack, you need an assignment-sound defense and fast, savvy linebackers who can jump a play or two. Oklahoma’s ‘backers have no shot against this group.

Oklahoma's keys to victory

Force communication: One facet that Oklahoma can exploit vs. Alabama is freshman CB Patrick Surtain versus motion or any kind of pre-snap movement (we’re nitpicking here, folks). Surtain has struggled with communication this year: ending up in the wrong spots, busting coverages, and even running into his own teammates:

Surtain, the top CB recruit in the country a year ago, has been excellent in bump-and-run and against static offenses. Where he has had issues, however, is when a team motions and snaps the ball quickly. Surtain wants to double and triple-check any defensive check. If the team snaps the ball quickly, he gets himself in trouble.

Oklahoma needs to force communication (the quickest way to miscommunication) and make sure the ball is snapped instantly once a player has moved pre-snap - force the officials to call multiple illegal shifts if you must.

Expect to see plenty of this:

Whiff on a check against Hollywood Brown, and it’s likely to be a 40-yard mistake.

Alabama has had some issues against explosive plays this season when teams attack out of condensed formations, putting receivers inside the hash marks. When receivers expand toward the sideline from those inside alignments, it can cause problems for the Tide’s matchup zone principles.

Chuck some pre-snap motion or shift on top of that and you’re asking a group of defensive backs to communicate constantly before, during, and after the snap. That’s mighty difficult, even for Alabama.

Create Turnovers: Alabama’s offense is going to score points; likely lots of them. It’s a big ask for this Oklahoma defense to get multiple stops. The best it can hope for is to force a couple of turnovers and steal some extra possessions for Kyler Murray to go to work.

Alabama's keys to victory

Hold firm in the red zone: There is a chance that Alabama’s defense does that Alabama defense thing: overwhelm a great offense with sheer brutality and wreck plays before they’re able to unfold.

Most likely, however, Oklahoma will move the ball. That’s just what it does under Lincoln Riley, regardless of the opponent. Like Georgia last year and Texas twice this time around, teams may be able to slow them for a stretch, but the Sooners will keep coming. Show Riley a defense often enough and he will crack it.

The only - louder: only - knock on the group is its conversion rate in the red zone. The Sooners are a middling red-zone team. If Bama can hold Murray et al. to field goals rather than touchdowns, it will cruise home.

Keep Tua clean: The nightmare scenario for Saban and Co. is that Tagovailoa takes a big shot and re-injures his knee. Can Hurts re-kindle the magic he unbottled in the SEC Championship game if Tua isn’t healthy? It’s plausible, but it seems unlikely.


Alabama 45, Oklahoma 28


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Orange Bowl preview: Can Oklahoma outgun powerhouse Alabama?
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