The 2018 Orange Bowl is the location of the College Football Playoff semifinal between Alabama and Oklahoma. The matchup is a fascinating one, with the two quarterbacks that dominated Heisman Trophy voting squaring off in a bid to send their respective teams on to play for the National Championship in Santa Clara.
By Steve Wright
Here are the three keys that will see Alabama move on:
Lester Cotton has to step up
It seems to be a yearly thing now that teams play in bowls without a handful of players. While the Crimson Tide will not be affected by players sitting out for “NFL preparation”, they will be without three suspended players who have all committed NCAA violations.
The losses of offensive tackle Elliot Baker and tight end Kendrick James are negligible; playing against Oklahoma (and possibly Clemson) without starting left guard Deonte Brown is going to be an issue.
Brown did not start the season in the lineup for Alabama. He stepped in mid-season when Nick Saban didn’t think that his offensive line was being aggressive enough in the running game. From that point onward the Crimson Tide has been much more dominant on the ground, often rushing the ball behind Brown and his road grading ability.
Cotton started at right guard for the Tide in 2017 and he has enough experience to step into the lineup and be productive. This issue is that Cotton’s specialty is pass blocking, while it feels like this will be a game where Alabama should be able to run over the top of Oklahoma. If Cotton doesn’t step up to the challenge then it is going to be a tougher task to rush up the middle.
Stop Kyler Murray taking over
There is a reason that Murray won the Heisman Trophy even though Tua Tagovailoa was putting up a monster season of his own in Tuscaloosa. Murray led Oklahoma to an insane 8.6 yards per play in 2018, besting the 8.1 yards per play that the Sooners managed with Baker Mayfield under center last season. That makes the 2018 Oklahoma squad the most prolific offensive unit in the history of FBS football.
Murray is such a dangerous quarterback to face because he is just as effective with his arm or his legs. There is a lot of Patrick Mahomes about the way Murray plays, with the Oklahoma star being the best quarterback in the country at making something out of nothing. His instinctive, improvisational ability is going to be a problem for Alabama and it will be interesting to see what Saban does to try to counter Murray’s unique skill set.
Don’t be shocked to see Alabama either spy Murray or cut back on the pass rush a little to keep Murray contained. If he is able to escape contain frequently, then it will be much more difficult for Alabama to slow the Oklahoma attack.
Protect Tua Tagovailoa
According to the quarterback himself, Tagovailoa is currently at about 80-85 percent healthy. The issue is his surgically-repaired right ankle, the same ankle that forced him from the Georgia game and led to the epic comeback spearheaded by Jalen Hurts.
Tagovailoa is not going to recover to full health by kickoff here, so the question becomes how much is he able to do on his ankle compared to when he is fully healthy?
Expect the ankle to be double and triple taped to improve the stability, but this will also cut down on the movement and elusiveness in the pocket that has become the quarterback’s trademark this season.
Against a solid defensive unit, and particularly a good secondary, this would be a serious problem. Thankfully for Alabama the Oklahoma defense is just about as bad as everyone has made it out to be this season. While Tagovailoa won’t be able to move in the pocket as much as usual, he also will likely not have to hang onto the ball for too long as his wide receivers will find themselves open quickly.
It will then just be down to Tua to make the throw.