College Football Playoff Preview: #1 Alabama vs #4 Oklahoma

Oh, how some things never change.

There’s never been a College Football Playoff without Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. In those four iterations, twice they won, and the losses came to the eventual champion.

Dynasty indeed.

Here they are again, as awesome as ever, smashing teams left and right. But this year’s dominance comes with a new flavor. Now, Saban is armed with a quarterback who could make waves in the NFL. Tua Tagavailoa lit up the SEC all season, throwing dazzling touchdown passes and enticing draft watchers.

Oh, and what of the Tide’s opponent, the Oklahoma Sooners? Yeah, he’s okay, too. Kyler Murray is only the Heisman Trophy winner and a top-10 draft pick in baseball, coached by one of the most innovative minds in the sport, Lincoln Riley.

It seems clear that Alabama (-14) vs Oklahoma (Saturday at 8 p.m., from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, on ESPN) is the sexier matchup of the playoff. By Bill Connelly’s Offensive S&P+ metric, the two best offenses in the country this year are … Oklahoma and Alabama. Not necessarily what one would expect from the Tide.

Maybe some things do change.

Some of the semifinal matchups from years past have been duds – I’m looking at you, Alabama 24 – Washington 7 and Clemson 31 – Ohio State 0. I’m betting this one is different.

Oklahoma offense vs Alabama defense

Oklahoma is going to score a lot of points on Alabama. I say this for a few reasons. One, their offense is absurd, and Murray is the precise kind of quarterback that has historically given fits to Nick Saban defenses. Two, Alabama is a bit more porous this year than you might assume given their name and coach.

Murray is in the mold of a Johnny Manziel or Deshaun Watson, a creative hyper-athlete who gets the ball to future NFL guys around him (although the most lethal of those weapons, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, likely will play but perhaps in a reduced role). The Heisman Trophy winner punishes mistakes. Alabama could afford to be sloppy against, say, Arkansas, but that won’t fly now. A bad read or a missed tackle can lead to six in the drop of a hat.

Riley is an expert at finding weak spots in a defense. Because the Sooners are blessed with Murray’s arm and a cavalcade of skill talent, they can attack the defense vertically and horizontally. No patch of grass is safe. The Oklahoma counters and RPOs can come from any formation at any time. The Sooners challenge your brain and your feet; if your brain can’t react fast enough, your feet have no chance.

This year’s Bama defense has been more porous than previous units, although the scale here is “historical to excellent” (8th in Defensive S&P+). But if we squint hard enough, you can see a few flaws, including a penchant for big plays. Not many, but the Sooners don’t need many openings, either.

(For the record, the best defense Oklahoma played this year is TCU, at 23. For Bama, it’s Mississippi State at 6.)

So what happens if Brown can’t play? Well, some of Oklahoma’s big-play ability would evaporate, but the offense revolves around Murray and head coach Lincoln Riley’s unique play calls and designs. They’ll still find ways to keep Alabama guessing, and that indecision is lethal.

Alabama offense vs Oklahoma defense

How healthy is Tua? During a recent media session, he said he’d be about 80 percent healthy come game time. He came out of the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game against Georgia with a high ankle sprain, leading to Jalen Hurts’ big comeback moment. Hurts’ performance notwithstanding, the Bama offense evolved because of Tagovailoa’s ability to make reads, flow in the pocket and deliver accurate throws downfield.

Hurts has surely grown in a year, but he’s not the starter for a reason.

Tagovailoa had surgery shortly after the Dec. 1 game and has gone through non-contact practices already. He will play, but he won’t be totally right again until next season. The biggest concern would be the risk of re-injury, especially given how many times he’s been hobbled this season.

Is a banged up Tagovailoa enough? Probably. The Sooners are a mess on that side of the ball, and odds are Alabama will be able to move it at will. I mean, Oklahoma ranks 89th in defensive S&P+. There are only 130 teams in the FBS, mind you.

There is no reason for Alabama to come out throwing, given that they might average 10 yards a carry against Oklahoma. In last year’s semifinal, Georgia averaged 9.3 against a better Sooners defense. One could argue Georgia had better running backs, but let’s not belabor the point. Alabama’s trio of running backs – Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs — are going to pulverize this Sooners defense, no matter who takes the snap.

I expect a deliberate attack from the Tide.

Special Teams

For all the credit Saban rightfully gets for his meticulous planning and famed process, the Tide typically suck in special teams. It’s the damndest thing. The Tide are 93rd in Special Teams S&P+, while the Sooners rank 32nd. I promise you this, not a single Bama fan wants this game to come down to a field goal.

The Tide are loaded with talent everywhere but kicker, evidently.

Prediction

I can envision plenty of scenarios where Oklahoma drops 50 on Alabama. I can envision plenty of scenarios where the Tide matches them point for point. I can see Alabama slowing down the Sooners some, but I can’t for the life of me imagine Oklahoma even marginally annoying the Tide offense. I just can’t.

If Alabama throws, they’ll succeed. If they run the ball, they’ll succeed. Given the two options, I expect the Tide will dominate the time of possession, run the ball incessantly and keep Murray and his merry band on the sideline. The best way to slow down Oklahoma is to never let them on the field.

Score: Alabama 45, Oklahoma 27

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