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By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 24, 2018
Whether it’s fair to either player or not, Alabama’s playoff semifinal against Oklahoma is going to serve a second purpose: It will be a referendum on whether Heisman Trophy voters got it right when they picked Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray over Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
Murray’s legend seemed to grow in the second half of the season, fueled by strong performances against several teams completely bereft of defenses. Murray has faced Alabama once before – as a freshman at Texas A&M, and his last play in that game consisted of watching Eddie Jackson running at him while carrying the football Murray had just thrown.
Murray chalked it up in an interview to the game being “a lot faster” when he was a freshman. If that’s true, Tua Tagovailoa is ten times the quarterback Murray was or is, because Tagovailoa’s true freshman season ended with an overtime touchdown pass to beat Georgia and claim a national title.
Much of the media coverage of this matchup has ended in a conclusion that Alabama’s defense has never seen anything like Murray. Never mind that Murray has never seen anything like an Alabama defense – at least since leaving Texas A&M, that is. Many analysts clearly believe an SEC defense is more capable of wilting than is the quarterback of a Big 12 team that nearly lost to Army and had a tough time getting by Kansas.
This might come down to Tagovailoa, then, to show what he can do against the kind of defense he never had the opportunity to see during the regular season.
Oklahoma leads the nation in total offense, scoring and passing efficiency. The Sooners are 8th in passing offense and 11th in rushing offense. Regardless of the Charmin-like qualities of Big 12 defenses, such balance is difficult to be attain and retain over a full season. Oklahoma will operate from the quintessential one-back, passing spread with a zone-read QB component that the Big 12, as a conference, has worked to the point of copyright the last decade or so. Alabama brings the 5th-ranked total offense in the country, 2nd in passing efficiency and scoring, ranked 7th in passing offense and 34th in rushing offense. Bama’s base scheme is more pro-style than Oklahoma’s, but there really isn’t much difference in the two teams.
Even if you think Kyler Murray really is the better quarterback than Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, the happenings in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia show why TideFans.com always looks at entire units when putting together our breakdowns.
Jalen Hurts was the difference for Alabama against Georgia, coming into the game after Tagovailoa’s second injury of the contest, and completely turning the game on its head when he did. Hurts was money on third downs against the Bulldogs and his ability to make Georgia think of him just as much (or more) a runner as he was a passer had the Bulldogs too discombobulated to think on Hurts’ final drive. Whether he plays against Oklahoma is unknown; Tagovailoa is ahead of schedule with his ankle rehab, but it wouldn’t surprise us to see Hurts get an expanded package or maybe even an entire series or two under center. If he doesn’t, and this becomes the Murray-Tagovailoa showdown the national media wants, the question is whether Tagovailoa will be healthy enough to get out of trouble and even to have called running plays be a significant part of the offensive plan.
Tagovailoa was clearly a different quarterback this year in weeks where his ankles weren’t a factor, but they’ll be a factor this week at least sufficient to make putting a plan together for Hurts a necessity. Murray is the best runner of the three quarterbacks; Tagovailoa is the best pure passer. Oklahoma’s backup, Austin Kendall, simply hasn’t had enough work to be considered an asset. As such, Bama’s much better depth is the factor here. Advantage: Alabama
Oklahoma sent two running backs over the 900-yard mark this year, and Murray tacked on another 892 yards. Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks ran for 928 and 1,021 yards, respectively, and in the process made Oklahoma too dangerous in the running game for opponents to simply key on Murray. On top of that, Sermon and Brooks are both good-sized backs, with Sermon weighing in at 225 pounds. These aren’t the typical, spread-style scatbacks most opponents are used to seeing out of teams like this. Third-teamer T.J. Pledger didn’t get a lot of carries, but showed well when he did.
Alabama will start Damien Harris, with Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris the principal backups. Unless Damien Harris catches fire against Oklahoma and then gets an opportunity to play a 15th game, Alabama will likely end the year without a 1,000-yard running back. Most surprisingly here is despite Alabama getting 22 touchdowns from its top three running backs, Oklahoma got 24 from just its top two, and then Murray threw in another 11 of his own on the ground. Oklahoma lacks anyone with the versatility of Jacobs, but Sermon proved to be a capable pass-catcher.
Oklahoma even found the time to develop a couple of fullbacks, Jeremiah Hall and Carson Meier, who do occasionally get to catch or carry the football. Alabama will use Brian Robinson Jr. there, but typically just as a blocker in select short-yardage situations. Bama has great players here but Oklahoma’s production is just too much to overlook. Advantage: Oklahoma
The amount of offensive production on the whole that the Sooners got this year is just staggering, and it continues with not one, but two receivers crossing the 1,000-yard mark, Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. Brown pulled down 1,318 yards, but he also suffered a foot injury against Texas and is listed as questionable for this game. Lamb “only” had 1,049 yards, but both he and Brown logged 10 touchdown catches apiece.
Top reserve Lee Morris added 8 touchdowns and averaged 21.8 yards per catch, which was part of a larger story: Oklahoma’s entire skill group averaged 16.5 yards per catch, which includes backs and tight ends. Starting tight end Grant Calcaterra chipped in 25 receptions, but at 220 pounds he’s basically just a big wideout and not an ideal blocker against the size DL he’ll be seeing in this game.
There’s also a general lack of depth, as only one other player, slot receiver Myles Tease, had 10 or more receptions. So if Brown is indeed out, or even not 100 percent, that’s a big hit for this group to take.
Alabama’s unit is finally 100 percent, as both Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith will be working at optimum health for this game. Combined with Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy and arguably the best true freshman wide receiver in the game this year, Jaylen Waddle, Alabama’s top four can easily hold its own against Oklahoma’s, and any statistical difference is due more to the defenses each team happened to face. The presence of tight end Irv Smith Jr., though, is really what sends it over for Alabama, as he’s just as capable of being an in-line blocker at the Y position as he is a game-changing receiver, something Calcaterra can’t do for Oklahoma.
Alabama’s depth situation isn’t any better than Oklahoma’s; Derek Kief had just 4 catches on the year and Tyrell Shavers, despite playing ahead of Kief most weeks, failed to catch a pass. Like Oklahoma, Alabama’s system-wide production was phenomenal: a 16.7-yard average per catch. With Brown not completely healthy, give this one to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama will get Deonte Brown back this week at left guard, but turf toe injuries for interior linemen tend not to go away completely until the offseason. Ross Pierschbacher will start at center, Alex Leatherwood at right guard and Bama’s tackles will be Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills, as usual. Brown in the lineup allows Alabama to do more things with its running backs, but Lester Cotton is on standby in case Brown falters. Cotton gives Alabama probably a better option as a pass blocker, but he’s not as solid in the running game and he tends to attract holding flags.
With a neutral officiating crew working this game, rather than the SEC’s typical laissez-faire attitude toward interior holding calls, it might prove to be doubly damaging if Brown can’t go. Alabama’s line had a fine year statistically, ranking 9th in sacks allowed and 11th in tackles for loss allowed – but Oklahoma did even better. The Sooners ranked 18th in sacks allowed, but led the nation in fewest tackles for loss allowed, not a good sign for Bama if the Crimson Tide finds itself needing to take out Oklahoma’s running game and compress the game around Murray.
For the Sooners, Creed Humphrey will start at center, with Ben Powers and Dru Samia at the guards and Cody Ford and Bobby Evans at the tackles. The only shortcoming in regards to Oklahoma is depth; all reserves but one are freshmen, and only one reserve played in more than 5 games on the year. Given Brown’s injury, hoping Oklahoma to be inept along the OL requires one to believe the defensive lines the Sooners faced never gave them a good look. Otherwise it’s a slim OU edge. Advantage: Oklahoma
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