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Is third time a charm for Sooners in playoff dance?

December 26, 2018 ▪ By Ray Dozier

Saturday night will feature the top two vote-getters for the Heisman Trophy on the same field for the third time in the BCS/College Football Playoff era, and all three times on the floor of Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Orange Bowl. Kyler Murray will call signals for No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) and Tua Tagovailoa counters for No. 1 Alabama (13-0) when the two teams meet Saturday (7 p.m. ESPN). Both players finished first and second respectively in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Heisman winner Chris Weinke and runner-up Josh Heupel met in the 2001 Orange Bowl, but Heupel guided Oklahoma to a national title over Florida State. Matt Leinart won the award in 2004 over OU’s Adrian Peterson, and led his USC Trojans to victory over the Sooners in the 2005 Orange Bowl.

Murray and Tagovailoa also finished one-two in the passer rating category. Murray broke teammate Baker Mayfield’s single-season record with a 205.7 rating. Murray completed 71 percent of his passes for 4,053 yards with 40 TDs and 7 INTs. Tagovailoa completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,353 yards with 37 TDs and 4 INTs to earn a 202.3 rating.

Tagovailoa will try to lead the Crimson Tide to their second straight national title and sixth in the last 10 years. He came off the bench in the second half of last year’s title matchup to guide Bama to a win over Georgia. This contest will be the first playoff for Murray, who will attempt to lead the Sooners to their eighth overall championship and first in 18 years.

Tagovailoa might not be 100 percent when these two blue bloods meet. He suffered an ankle injury in the SEC Championship Game and had surgery a couple of days later. He has been practicing with the Tide in preparation for the Orange Bowl and is expected to play. If not, Jalen Hurts will take over at QB. He led Bama to a come-from-behind win over Georgia in the SEC title matchup.

Both teams also have the top two offenses in the country. The Sooners lead with 49.5 points and 577.9 yards per game. UA is second in scoring with an average of 47.9 per outing but ranks seventh with 527.6 yards per game.

That’s where the similarities end. The Tide have one of the best defenses in the nation allowing 14.8 points (fourth) and 295.4 yards per contest. Oklahoma’s defense has struggled all season as it has given up an average of 32.4 points (96th) and 448.1 yards (108th).

Jerry Jeudy leads the Tide’s receiving corps with 59 catches for 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns and earned this year’s Biletnikoff Award. Four others have grabbed at least 20 passes this year. Running back Damien Harris is Bama’s leading ball carrier with 771 yards and 7 TDs. His backup Josh Jacobs leads the team with 11 rushing touchdowns.

Sophomore noseguard Quinnen Williams is the defenses’ ringleader. He took home this year’s Outland Trophy by leading the Crimson Tide with 18 tackles for loss, including 8 sacks. Linebacker Dylan Moses had a team-high 76 tackles—10 of them behind the line.

UA’s secondary picked off 10 passes this year with cornerback Savion Smith grabbing a team-high 3 INTs. Safety Deionte Thompson earned All-American honors with two picks, broke up 5 passes and forced 4 fumbles.

The most exciting matchup is likely to be Oklahoma’s offensive line vs. Bama’s defensive front. The Sooners front wall of center Creed Humphrey, guards Ben Powers and Dru Samia, and tackles Cody Ford and Bobby Evans have been a reliable force in helping OU obtain a fourth straight Big 12 title. Powers was a consensus All-American, and Samia was named to Sports Illustrated’s All-American team and co-Offensive Lineman of the year in the Big 12. Ford also was selected to the league’s first team.

The Tide’s O-line also was a finalist for the award. Jonah Williams, a consensus All-American, is the leader at left tackle. Starting left guard Deonte Brown was among three players suspended for the game for violating team rules. The other two are backups.

For the second straight year and third time in the past four, the Sooners have made the College Football Playoff, but the past two times weren’t successful for them to get a shot at the national championship. The defense will have to rise up and play its best game all year. The D has shown signs of making big stops in the last two games.

The defense forced two fumbles against West Virginia, and both were returned for a touchdown. The Sooners allowed 27 points and 437 yards to Texas in the Big 12 title game, 21 points less than their first encounter in October.

Oklahoma’s front seven must be physical and force Tagovailoa or Hurts into uncomfortable situations. Make some stops and force turnovers. Alabama needs to, well, be Alabama. The Tide has outscored their foes by an average of 33 points.

OU's offense will put a lot of points on the board but will need for Marquise Brown and Trey Sermon to be healthy. Don’t turn the ball over and minimize penalties, especially stupid ones. The Sooners are coming into the Orange Bowl as double-digit (14) bowl underdogs for only the third time. They were 16.5 dogs to Bama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl and beat the Tide, 45-31. They were 10.5-point underdogs to Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl, and won, 13-2, for a national championship.

Nearly everyone is not giving Oklahoma a chance to win this game. But no one thought OU would beat the Tide in the Sugar Bowl five years ago nor the Seminoles 18 years ago.

The New England Patriots were favored by 12 points in Super Bowl XLII, but the New York Giants won, 17-14. Green Bay’s Packers were heavy favorites (11.5) to beat Denver in Super Bowl XXXII, but the Broncos prevailed, 31-24. Two early day Super Bowls witnessed upsets. The Jets, an 18-point underdog knocked off Baltimore by 9 points. A year later, Kansas City, a 13-point dog, beat the Vikings by 16 points.

Of course, no one in their right mind believed Buster Douglas would beat Mike Tyson for the heavyweight championship in 1990. Tyson was a 42-1 favorite, and only one booking house took money on the fight. Douglas won in a 10th round knock out to claim the crown.

Would I be crazy to pick the Sooners to beat Alabama Saturday night? It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called nuts for going out on a limb. Let’s call it a hunch. Sooner Magic strikes again.

Sooners 50, Crimson Tide 45.

Fast Facts

  • OU leads the series 3-1-1; 1-1-1 in bowl games.
  • UA leads 1-0 in Orange Bowl matchups.
  • OU is 29-21-1 (.578) overall in bowl games; 12-7 in the Orange Bowl; 4 straight losses.
  • UA is 40-25-3 (.611) overall in bowl games; 4-4 in the Orange Bowl; 3 straight losses.
  • OU is 7-14-2 vs. teams ranked No. 1 in AP poll.
  • UA is 2-4 vs. teams ranked No. 4 in the AP poll.
  • Lincoln Riley is 24-3 (.889) overall; 0-0 vs. UA; 0-1 in bowl games; vs. 8-1 non-conference opponents; 7-2 vs. ranked foes.
  • Nick Saban is 236-62-1 (791) overall; at UA: 145-20 (.879); 1-1 vs. OU; 8-3 in bowl games; 132-7 vs. non-conference foes; 56-17 vs. ranked opponents.
  • OU is 2-1 in games played on December 29.
  • UA is 1-0 in games played on December 29.
  • ESPN’s College GameDay will broadcast from the Orange Bowl. OU is 23-12 when GameDay present; UA is 29-15.

Articles by Ray Dozier