Oklahoma preview: Sooner or later, it all comes down to defense

DEFENSE

Oklahoma’s base 3-3-5 defense is built to defend the spread offenses of the Big 12, yet it failed to do so with any regularity in 2018. Oklahoma’s best defensive rating actually came against the run, as the Sooners finished 54th in rush defense – probably because the secondary couldn’t stop water from catching fire. Oklahoma ranked dead last – 129th – in raw pass defense, 105th in pass efficiency defense and 108th in total defense.

Scoring defense was 96th and turnover margin 83rd, the latter largely on account of the Sooner defense failing to recover a fumble all year. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under didn’t have a vintage season, but compared to Oklahoma, the Sooners are a tinymite team from Hahira, Ga., and Alabama is every NFL defense of all time, combined. The Crimson Tide ranks 4th in scoring defense, 10th in total defense, 13th in both pass defense and pass efficiency defense, and 18th in rush defense.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The Sooners rank 63rd in sacks and 67th in tackles for loss, but it bears mentioning Georgia came into its game with Alabama also deficient in sacks yet had little trouble affecting the pocket. Neville Gallimore will start at nosetackle for Oklahoma, with Kenneth Mann and Amani Bledsoe the starters at end. Gallimore has 3 sacks on the year, the same number as Mann and Bledsoe combined, so pressuring the QB isn’t the long suit here. Bledsoe is adept at deflecting passes, though, as he has 7 of those on the season.

Size is a factor for Mann, who is trying to hold a point position despite weighing just 260 pounds. None of the three reserves – Isaiah Thomas, Tyreece Lott or Dillion Faamatau – has really made an impact. If there’s an impact position up front, it’s what Oklahoma calls its Jack linebacker spot, where Ronnie Perkins and Mark Jackson Jr. rotate at the position. When Perkins is in, OU’s front begins to resemble a 4-2-5 look, as he has size to get in a stance. Jackson, though – at 6’1”, 230 – is small for a DE in any league, much less against an SEC offensive line. The two have combined for 8 sacks and Alabama will have to account for them on third down.

Alabama will start Quinnen Williams at nosetackle with Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs flanking him. The hope is that Buggs is finally 100 percent after a nasty cut block he survived in the Auburn game. LaBryan Ray has developed into a solid option off the bench at end, and his playing time will go up if Buggs is still slowed. Johnny Dwight and Phidarian Mathis will back up Davis and Williams, respectively. This one isn’t particularly close, especially up the middle thanks to Williams’ mammoth year. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Give OU the edge in productivity, for sure: Starters Kenneth Murray and Curtis Bolton each topped 130 tackles on the season. They also combined for 8 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss, but had only 4 passes defended and no interceptions. Given the inability for OU’s front to stop rushing attacks close-in, or the secondary’s ability to handle coverage on short routes, Murray and Bolton basically spent the season chasing rabbits. Bolton being the size of an SEC safety also gives Alabama hope it can run inside. Caleb Kelly rotates in with the starters enough that he should probably count as a starter; he was the team’s fourth-leading tackler despite starting just 4 games in specialty packages and missing two games outright. The aforementioned Mark Jackson Jr. and Ronnie Perkins are basically linebackers in OU’s alignment.

Alabama will start Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson in the middle, with Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller outside. The effectiveness of Jennings and Miller against spread passing teams has been scattershot, but Moses and Wilson have developed into good all-around linebackers and Jennings and Miller are a handful when turned loose to rush the passer from the outside. Oklahoma’s linebackers have accounted for more tackles, yes; have the Sooners been game-changers at the position? Not hardly. As a side note, Terrell Lewis might not be that far away from contributing off the bench for Bama. Advantage: Alabama

DEFFENSIVE BACKS
This is the weakness of the Sooner defense, without question. Aside from cornerback Parnell Motley, who recorded 10 passes defended, led the team with 3 interceptions and was the team’s third-leading tackler, the OU secondary is the place Sooner fans’ dreams of shutouts go to die. Motley isn’t even listed as a starter for the game, but that could change given Oklahoma’s injury situation. Safety Kahlil Haughton is listed as questionable and wasn’t in the depth chart sent out earlier this week. Jordan Parker and Justin Broiles were listed 1-2 at strong safety, but both are questionable, and if Parker starts it will only be for the second time all year. If neither can go, it’s going to trigger a massive shakeup in the depth chart.

For now, Tre Norwood and Tre Brown are listed as the starting corners, with Motley their backup. Brown leads the team with 12 PBUs and is also good on the blitz. Brendan Radley-Hiles would start at nickel, with Robert Barnes at free safety. The starter at strong safety would probably be Delarrin Turner-Yell, a freshman who has played in just 6 games on the season. Broiles being out would also remove OU’s other reserve cornerback from the mix.

Alabama is probably at their healthiest, with the notable exception of Trevon Diggs still being out with a foot injury. Saivion Smith and Patrick Surtain II will start at corner, with Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney at the safety positions. Shyheim Carter will start at star, with Jared Mayden at dime. Alabama’s athleticism stands out in this comparison, and with the uncertainty at safety for Oklahoma, this comparison is mostly a one-sided affair. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Despite all the struggles – especially the high-profile failings of the PAT unit – over the past few weeks, Alabama’s special teams have been far more of a help than a hindrance. Placekicker Joseph Bulovas continues to do well on kickoffs, and he has made 75% of his field goal attempts in 2018, with his three-quarters percentage consistent regardless of range. Punter Mike Bernier doesn’t have the strongest leg, but he’s been arrow-lethal in plus territory and his energy is infectious. The return game has cooled off since a hot start at the beginning of the year, but Josh Jacobs and Jaylen Waddle are threats to take anything back at any time. Bama’s coverage units have done a solid job.

Oklahoma, though, is on another level as far as kickers go. Placekicker Austin Siebert has made 83 of 84 PATs and 15 of 17 field goal attempts. If there’s a negative here, it’s that Oklahoma has only attempted two field goals from beyond 40 yards, and Siebert is 1-for-2 on those kicks; his range hasn’t been tested yet. Siebert also handles the punting, and his 41.1-yard average is acceptable. Oklahoma’s coverage teams have allowed the Sooners a ranking of 34th in net punting. The Sooners are just as dangerous on returns as Alabama is. Bama is solidifying its kicking game, but Oklahoma is already there. Advantage: Oklahoma

OVERALL

Alabama leads in five categories, Oklahoma in three. Anything on the offensive side of the ball could go either way, as could linebacker or, yes, even special teams. As for the OL-DL cross-matchups, the two offensive lines would seem to have the edge, although the matchup of Oklahoma OL versus Alabama DL is somewhat uncharted territory thanks to Oklahoma’s soft schedule to this point.

Basically, the Oklahoma season came down to two games against Texas – which the Sooners split – and some closer-than-expected games against Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. And then there was the real outlier, the 28-21 overtime victory over Army, which found Oklahoma’s offense confined to the sidelines for most of the game while the Army triple-option attack chewed up a lot of clock.

We’re not sure exactly how all-offense, no-defense teams like Oklahoma suddenly turn into world-beaters in the eyes of analysts once the postseason gets here, but there is some history to back it up. Oklahoma probably should have beaten Georgia last year and played against Alabama in Atlanta, rather than Georgia getting the honor. The Sooners, of course, soundly beat Alabama the last time these two teams played in the postseason, although Alabama was clearly not interested in being there, having suffered through the infamous “Kick Six” game at Auburn a month before and losing its national title shot because of it. Alabama also made Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight famous that night, as Knight – out of character, we might add – seemingly couldn’t miss.

This game is different, all around. Baker Mayfield is playing pro ball in Cleveland, for one. Trevor Knight is now on the roster of something called the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football. And Alabama very much has something to play for.

From a matchup standpoint, though, Alabama’s defense holds the key to it all, and must have a good day on the field. Not just against Kyler Murray, but also against a running back group that is probably one of the two or three best Alabama has faced this year. Oklahoma is averaging 49.5 points per game in 2018. Alabama will have to knock 15 or so off that average in order to be comfortable.

At the same time, the offense cannot do what it did against Georgia. The Bulldogs weren’t nearly as bad at defense as this Oklahoma team is, but Alabama’s offensive line couldn’t pass-protect effectively, and it wasn’t until Bama rededicated itself to the running game (and got the boost from Jalen Hurts) that fortunes began to turn. Either way, Alabama can’t suddenly make Oklahoma’s front seven look like the Kansas City Chiefs under Derrick Thomas. Bama must protect its quarterback.

If Alabama does so, Oklahoma has a conundrum of its own: Do you let your own offense go fast, knowing it will just result in more chances for Tua Tagovailoa and friends?

Our thinking is that this turns out to be a very similar game to last year’s Georgia-Oklahoma game, but Alabama’s defense should be good for one or two extra stops.

Alabama 45
Oklahoma 36

READ MORE:
Alabama vs Georgia Offense Preview


Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN


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