8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Alabama -14, Over/Under: 76
Clearly the main event of the College Football Playoff Semifinal, the No. One-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide face off against the No. Four Oklahoma Sooners at the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, for the right to compete in next week’s National Championship Game. For reigning Champion Alabama (13-0, 9-0), the prohibitive favorite at this stage of the competition, an opportunity to compete in a fourth consecutive National Championship Game is waiting in the wings. While it’s difficult to imagine, the Crimson Tide snuck into last year’s Playoff, though managed to upset top-ranked Georgia in an epic final, that introduced one particular Heisman candidate to the national consciousness. In one of the ballsiest moves in the history of the sport, Nick Saban implanted Tua Tagovailoa in the starting lineup, with the Freshman Quarterback proceeding to carve up the Bulldogs’ Defense throughout the Second Half before eventually delivering the killing blow in Overtime of the 26-23 triumph. Now, nearly a year later, the Tide’s fortunes rest on the availability of the young Hawaiian, who after a ridiculously productive campaign, may be compromised due to a high ankle sprain that he suffered in the SEC Championship Game.
In a rematch with Georgia back on December 1st, Tagovailoa was visibly hampered by the injury (10-of-25, 164 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT), with his side trailing by as many Fourteen Points late in the First Half, ironically leaving the door open for his predecessor, Jalen Hurts (74.6%, 755 YDS, 11.3 Y/A, 8 TD, 2 INT) to do to the Bulldogs what his teammate did so effectively in the National Championship. To his credit, the Junior Quarterback made play after play against the SEC East Champions, shocking Georgia with his arm, completing 7-of-9 Passes for Eighty-Two Yards and a Touchdown, while rushing for another Twenty-Eight Yards and a Score on Five Carries, including the go-ahead 15-Yard Run with just over a minute left to play, sealing the 35-28 victory. Mobility is indeed his greatest strength, though it will be the mobility of Tagovailoa that will ultimately dictate who will start in this Semifinal. Shortly after the win over Georgia, the Heisman Finalist underwent surgery on his ankle, which had been lingering ailment over the final month of the Regular Season. Fortunately for Saban, the timing of his rehab couldn’t have been better, with well over twenty-five days passing since the surgery took place. The Sophomore Signal-Caller has begun practicing with his teammates, though it remains entirely possible that Saban employs a gameplan that utilizes both Quarterbacks as he did in both meetings with the Bulldogs. While Hurts is capable of punishing opponents with his legs, rushing for 1,976 Yards and Twenty-Three Touchdowns over the past three seasons in Tuscaloosa, Tagovailoa has been nothing short of special when throwing the football in 2018; the youngster has completed 67.7% of his Attempts for 3,353 Yards on 11.4 Yards per Attempt, and a school-record Thirty-Seven Touchdowns in comparison to just Four Interceptions. Throughout his distinguished tenure at Alabama, Saban has rarely had a Quarterback capable of stressing Defenses in this manner, making his availability all the more important for this Semifinal against Oklahoma.
That importance comes in the likelihood that this particular matchup could very well turn into a shootout, and one would certainly figure that the Tide would be more equipped to match the explosive Sooners point for point with Tagovailoa under Center rather than Hurts. Since he came to Tuscaloosa back in 2007, this has been by far and away Saban’s highest-scoring Offense (47.9 P/G) and most productive in terms of total yardage (527.6 Y/G), including a whopping 325.5 Yards through the air, which is a direct reflection of Tagovailoa’s presence. And oh, have the players around him benefitted; Jerry Jeudy (59, 1,130 YDS, 18.7 Y/R, 12 TD) has been arguably the most productive Receiver in the country, while Henry Ruggs (42 REC, 724 YDS, 17.2 Y/R, 10 TD) and Jaylen Waddle (41 REC, 803 YDS, 19.6 Y/R, 7 TD) have logged their fair share of big plays, with five different players totaling at least Thirty Receptions and 500 Receiving Yards, with each of them averaging no less than a healthy 17.0 Yards per Reception. However, if Hurts is indeed the Quarterback to receive the majority of snaps, then it wouldn’t be unrealistic to see Alabama fall back into the formula that has worked so well for them in the past: controlling the game on the ground with their methodical, physical rushing attack. Despite all the attention that their passing game has received this season, the Crimson Tide have still found time to run the football, averaging 202.2 Yards on 5.3 Yards per Carry. It’s very much been a committee-like approach to the Backfield, with Damien Harris (126 CAR, 771 YDS, 6.1 Y/C, 7 TD), Najee Harris (102 CAR, 679 YDS, 6.7 Y/C, 4 TD), and Joshua Jacobs (94 CAR, 495 YDS, 5.3 Y/C, 11 TD) churning out yards behind one of the nastiest Offensive Lines in the game.
Meanwhile, looking to dethrone the defending National Champions is Oklahoma (12-1, 9-1 in Big XII), who will be making their second consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff. Last season, the Sooners entered the Semifinal armed with a high-flying Offense led by a Heisman-winning Quarterback (Baker Mayfield), though were ultimately outgunned in a 48-54 epic that required TWO Overtimes against the Georgia Bulldogs. Lincoln Riley and his charges certainly hope that bringing that same formula to the table will result in a different outcome this time around, with the electrifying Kyler Murray at the helm. Make no mistake about it, there is no single player in this Playoff that stands to elevate himself greater than Murray, which is hard to think of when you consider what lies in his trophy case at the moment. Eliminating Alabama would do wonders for a young man, who despite being destined for a career in Major League Baseball, has continued to weigh his options in potentially entering the NFL Draft. There aren’t many better ways to impress NFL Scouts than performing well against a Crimson Tide Defense that annually sends a militia of players to the professional ranks. And given his resume’ thus far, there is reason to believe that this kid could do just that.
Murray has spearheaded the highest-scoring outfit in the nation this season, with Oklahoma averaging a robust 49.5 Points per Game on 578.4 Total Yards, including 324.0 Yards through the air and another 254.4 Yards on the ground. The Big XII Offensive Player of the Year has been outrageously prolific, even by Sooners’ standards, completing 70.9% of his Attempts for 4,053 Yards on 11.9 Yards per Attempt, with a staggering Forty Touchdowns in comparison to just Seven Interceptions. The former Texas A&M Transfer has made up for his lack of stature (he stands just 5-10) by routinely exhibiting the ability to get out of the Pocket and make plays on the move, and when he has decided to tuck the football and take off, opposing Defenses have been torn to ribbons. Murray has rushed for 892 Yards and Eleven Touchdowns on a healthy 7.3 Yards per Carry, adding further depth to an Attack that has employed no shortage of playmakers. What does it say about a unit when they lose arguably their top Tailback to a season-ending injury (Rodney Anderson went down for the count early in their second outing of the campaign), and still manage to churn out 254.4 Rushing yards on 6.7 Yards per Carry? Murray’s exploits aside, Trey Sermon (155 CAR, 928 YDS, 6.0 Y/C, 12 TD) and Kennedy Brooks (113 CAR, 1,021 YDS, 9.0 Y/C, 12 TD) have more than filled the void left by their teammate. This is precisely where Oklahoma must go to work against Alabama, for their production on the ground will dictate whatever success they will have in throwing the football downfield.
However, there is the not so small matter of stopping the Tide’s Offense, which is nearly as prolific as the Sooners’, which means that Oklahoma’s Defense is going to have to find a way to put together the performance of their lives. Big XII Defenses oftentimes are criticized through the harshest of lenses, and this particular unit is no different, allowing opponents to score 32.4 Points per Game (96th Overall) on 448.1 Total Yards, including 291.4 Yards against the Pass and another 156.7 Yards versus the Run. Riley’s troops have yielded at least 400 Yards of Total Offense on eight different occasions this season, including at least 500 Yards four times, three of which have come in their past four outings alone. The biggest issue here is that this is a group that simply doesn’t generate many big plays, be it Takeaways, Sacks, or Tackles for Loss, permitting opponents to string together long drives and create big plays against them. On the year, the Big XII Champions have logged an uninspiring Eleven Takeaways (six of which were Interceptions), Twenty-Eight Sacks, and Seventy-Seven Tackles for Loss. In comparison, their opponent tonight has forced Twenty-One Turnovers, amassed Forty-Two Sacks, and Ninety-Seven Tackles for Loss. What also shouldn’t go overlooked is how this month off will affect how they prepare for Alabama’s Offense. It would have been to their advantage if they had a month to prepare for either Tagovailoa or Hurts, but given the former’s injury, this Defense must prepare for both, which is a different proposition altogether. After all, we’ve recently seen how a significantly better Defense (Georgia) dealt with such a predicament.