A great team can be forgiven for coasting once in a while.
For instance, Notre Dame mostly dominated through the latter half of a taxing schedule – but also squeaked by Pittsburgh 19-14, jogged through the 2nd half of a 44-22 result against Navy, and needed a late insurance TD to triumph by 7 over 5-7 Southern Cal in the season capper. No one is calling UND’s 12-0 record a fluke…at least not yet.
But while Alabama’s brute force and talent continue to make the difference in the program’s latest long unbeaten run, Nick Saban’s defending FBS champs have not played up to potential since shutting-out LSU on November 3rd. The Tide needed favorable referee’s calls to steer clear of a tight finish against Mississippi State, a scrum which was followed by a planned “thrash for cash” visit from The Citadel that threatened to turn into an upset of Miracle on Ice proportions.
The Georgia Bulldogs led Alabama through much of the SEC Championship Game. UGA rusher D’Andre Swift found daylight up the middle, and the Tide’s LBs looked a bit slow on passing plays. Alabama was forced to substitute size in place of speed in the front-7. Light-footed packages couldn’t stop the run.
When QB Tua Tagovailoa went down with a high ankle sprain in the 2nd half, backup Jalen Hurts piloted the winning drive like a boss, hitting freshman WR Jaylen Waddle to pierce the Red Zone before running 15 yards for a TD to give the Tide a 35-28 lead they would not surrender.
But what happened to an Alabama defense that looked as powerful as ever in early autumn? And is the team truly healthy at QB?
Las Vegas seems to think so. ‘Bama opened as a 14-point favorite vs Oklahoma in Miami on December 29th and the line for the CFP semifinal has barely wavered. The Over/Under is an eye-popping (79.5) points.
Saban, Tagovailoa and the Tuscaloosa media have been treating the sophomore’s ankle injury like a chigger bite. There does not seem to be much question as to who will start behind center in Magic City. But the signal-caller needed surgery. Hurts suffered an ankle injury of his own earlier in the season, and did not look 100% against Georgia in spite of turning in a heroic comeback.
The Alabama defense is led by mercenaries like Quinnen Williams and senior Christian Miller, who combined for 4 sacks in the 29-0 beat-down of LSU. Junior DB Saivion Smith intercepted Missouri’s Drew Lock twice on October 13th and finished the conference title bout with 11 total tackles. But there is no question the unit has merely been good, not great, in the team’s most recent contests.
Can Oklahoma run the football well enough to force Saban to go “heavy” in the front-7? If so, Heisman winner Kyler Murray could have a field day passing the ball. If not, then you can go ahead and pencil-in Alabama to face the winner of Clemson vs Notre Dame for the FBS crown.
— Orange Bowl (@OrangeBowl) December 10, 2018
Norman’s NASCAR Offense
OU’s offense has been exceptional and could be peaking at the right time. The speedy junior QB’s go-to target is Marquise Brown, who has 75 catches for over 1300 yards on the season. CeeDee Lamb and a throng of quick receiving threats have combined for 31 additional touchdowns. But that won’t matter if Oklahoma is always in 3rd down and long.
Blocking ought not to be an issue. OU’s offensive line was recently awarded the Joe Moore Award as the premium front-5 in all of college football. The left side of the unit is especially remarkable, with LT Bobby Evans starting next to aptly-named Ben Powers. Tailbacks Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon have combined for around 2000 yards rushing on the year.
The Sooner defense has been losing the LOS too often. West Virginia scored 50+ points and Kansas 40-even in a pair of November games with OU. The unit did look better in the Big 12 title game against Texas, giving up only 27 points and looming large in the 4th quarter. CB Parnell Motley has 3 interceptions on the year, and the Oklahoma edge-rush has not looked all that bad with Kenneth Murray leading the charge from the LB position.
Vegas foresees a very high-scoring game with Alabama out-racing Oklahoma. But the Tide’s best chance for a stress-free victory lies in a different sort of skirmish.
In spite of Alabama’s passing-game fireworks early in the season, I can’t imagine Saban will go with a game plan that puts Tagovailoa (or Hurts) in harm’s way in the 1st and 2nd quarter. RB Damien Harris will be asked to shoulder a larger load and establish ball-control against the #4 seed.
Sin City Gets it Bass Ackwards
Betting sites cannot have a fat Over/Under and eat it too. OU’s defense would be almost helpless in a smash-mouth battle of wills. But the Crimson & Cream are comfortable in shoot-outs, and I expect the Oklahoma defensive backfield to create turnovers in a track meet as much as I trust the ‘Bama D to hold fast in a 28-17 type of outcome.
If the contest is tight, then Alabama will almost certainly win – the chances of Oklahoma prevailing 14-6 or 21-14 are almost unspeakably slim – but a low score would also increase OU’s chances to cover or at least push the (+14) point spread. If it’s a NASCAR race to the finish line? Then the Heisman winner will have every chance to out-gun either of 2 limping rivals.
Unfortunately for Oklahoma, I don’t think 80+ points will be scored. But fortunately for savvy bettors, a less highlight-filled evening leads to a better % chance to win on the Under.
Take “The U” in Miami, but not the Hurricanes – rather the “under” (79.5) total points.
Meanwhile, my pick ATS is Oklahoma…so long as heavy action does not move the number below 2 touchdowns.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.