The highlight of this year’s bowl season is surely the Capital One Orange Bowl between the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide and no. 4 Oklahoma Sooners. Of course, this bowl also serves as the second College Football Playoff national semi-final games. Game time is set for 8:00 EST on Saturday, December 29, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. Fans can catch all the action on ESPN.
Alabama enters this game as 14-point favorites over Oklahoma. The over/under is set at an ambitious 79 points. Be sure to check out a full list of this year’s college bowl odds.
Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley has taken the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in each of his first two seasons as head coach. A year ago, the Sooners fell short in that epic showdown with Georgia. After replacing Heisman winner Baker Mayfield with this year’s Heisman winner, Kyler Murray, Oklahoma is back in the CFP and ready to face another SEC team. While they had a few close calls along the way, Oklahoma’s only loss this season came in a rivalry game against Texas. The Sooners also avenged that loss in the Big 12 Championship Game, making them 12-1 heading into the Orange Bowl.
As for Alabama, being in the CFP has almost become old hat. The Crimson Tide have earned a spot in the playoff in all five seasons, advancing to the championship game in each of the last three years and winning two titles. Unlike last year, Alabama enters the national semi-finals as flawless SEC champions, going 13-0 after a comeback victory over Georgia in the SEC title game. That was the only game this season the Crimson Tide didn’t win a game by at least three touchdowns, as they rose to the occasion the one and only time they were challenged by an opponent for a full 60 minutes.
The last time Oklahoma and Alabama saw one another was the Sugar Bowl following the 2013 Sugar Bowl. Saban’s Crimson Tide was favored by 17.5 points in that game but failed to deliver. Bob Stoops and the Sooners won 45-31. Of course, Riley was not on Oklahoma’s staff at the time, so this will be the 35-year old wonderkid’s first time facing Saban.
Many see Alabama advancing as a pre-determined outcome. To be honest, I don’t disagree with that. But I don’t think it’ll be that easy. Despite all of Oklahoma’s flaws, they have some incredible strengths that can give Alabama some trouble. If we learned anything from last year’s semi-final it’s that Oklahoma can go toe-to-toe with an SEC champion. The Tide will likely win, but I like the Sooners to keep it within two touchdowns and beat the spread.
While Alabama breezed through their schedule, they did not play a difficult schedule, at least by SEC standards. Auburn underachieved, Texas A&M was rebuilding, and even LSU and Mississippi State were far from complete teams. It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that they had trouble against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. I think Oklahoma can give the Tide similar trouble after a season of dismantling mostly average teams.
Obviously, Heisman winner Kyler Murray is the biggest key for Oklahoma. He has the kind of skill set that has given Saban and the Alabama defense headaches in recent years. Murray has almost unprecedented speed at the quarterback position. He’s also an incredibly accurate thrower, completing over 70% of his passes on the season. Of course, he also has the arm strength to push the ball down the field. It also helps that the Sooners have incredible speed at the wide receiver position from Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. It’s fair to say that Alabama didn’t face any team this year with the same kind of deep passing attack as Oklahoma.
Another area that’s important not to overlook is Oklahoma’s offensive line. The Sooners have arguably the best offensive line in the country. Even against other SEC teams, Alabama is accustomed to dominating teams at the line of scrimmage. Obviously, the Crimson Tide has NFL-level talent on the defensive line. But it’s not a given that they’ll push around the Sooners up front as they do to other teams. Between Oklahoma’s strength up front and Murray’s elusiveness and speed, sacks could be few and far between for the Alabama defense in this game.
That being said, I can’t ignore how terrible Oklahoma’s defense was for most of the season. It’s befuddling how a team that recruits like Oklahoma can have such a massive deficiency on one side of the ball. However, the Sooners deserve some credit for playing a solid game against Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game. With the extra practice time, there’s a chance the Oklahoma defense can get their act together and look halfway decent against Alabama.
Of course, there’s also the lingering question about Tua Tagovailoa’s health after he had surgery to address a high-ankle sprain suffered against Georgia. He has since returned to practice, and by all accounts, should be ready to play in the Orange Bowl. But he was also battling a knee injury most of the year, which is also a small concern. Obviously, Jalen Hurts was great in relief against Georgia, so the Tide are comfortable if they have to go to their backup quarterback. But the Alabama offense is a lot more limited with Hurts compared to Tagovailoa, and that may not fly if the Tide have to rely on Hurts in a shootout.
Ultimately, it’d be shocking to see Alabama lose this game. But Oklahoma isn’t going to roll over and make it easy for the Tide. The Sooners have arguably the most explosive offense in the country, and there’s no way the Tide can keep them under wraps for four quarters. I like Alabama to win, but Oklahoma is more than good enough to beat the 14-point spread.