Can Sooners Outlast Crimson Tide in 2018 Orange Bowl?

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D.S. Williamson

December 28th, 2018

Instead of putting together an SEC Championship rematch between the #1 Alabama Crimson Tide and nemesis Georgia, the CFP Selection Committee decided to go with Big 12 Champion #4 Oklahoma as Bama’s College Football Semifinal opponent on Dec. 29th in the 2018 Orange Bowl. By doing so, they might have created one of the most interesting matchups so far in the history of the CFP.

Oklahoma makes no excuses for who they are. Lincoln Riley’s squad, who marches into the College Football Playoff for the second straight season, doesn’t pretend it’s more than what it is: a high-scoring team that forces the pace and plays minimal, if any, defense. Behind the golden arm of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, Oklahoma suffered only a single loss this season in the Red River Rivalry. They gained revenge over the Longhorns, the only team to beat them, in the Big 12 Championship.

As you well know, Alabama didn’t lose any games. The Crimson Tide rallied in the SEC Championship to beat the Bulldogs and gain yet another bid to the College Football Playoff. Coach Nick Saban knows that Oklahoma’s the most unique team that Bama’s faced yet this season. He understands that not even powerful Alabama can keep up with Murray and Oklahoma if Riley gets the machine going.

The second CFP Semifinal on Saturday could be one of those classic philosophy matchups where the team that imposes their will on the tempo and game script ends up winning the game outright.

CFP SEMIFINAL - 2018 ORANGE BOWL FOOTBALL BETTING #4 Oklahoma Sooners vs #1 Alabama Crimson Tide Saturday, December 29th – Hard Rock Stadium – 8:00pm ET Odds: Bama -14 (79.5)

Sooners Hope for Track Meet

Let’s get through the unreal stats first before talking about system. The Sooners average 578 yards. Murray averages 324 passing yards while the rushing attack goes for 254. Oklahoma averages over 49 points per.

Riley’s created the most effective offensive system in college football history. His blueprint relies on pulling guards and tripping up linebackers while also creating cutback lanes. It starts with the quarterback read option, but it’s much more than that.

Riley tweaks the system depending on what the specific teams runs on defense. Those adjustments are what’s led to the Sooners producing the last couple of Heisman Trophy winners. Oklahoma never runs a traditional play no matter if it’s a run or pass. There’s a wrinkle on every play because what the system really tries to do is force a reaction from opposing linebackers.

By doing so, run plays get into the secondary and teams have to stack the box, which makes it easier for Murray to rip deep balls through the unprotected skies. The goal with every play? Speed the game up, gain as much yardage as possible, and score as quickly as possible.

By turning the game into a track meet, Oklahoma forces opponents to keep up. There’s few, if any, teams in college football that can stick with the Oklahoma Sooners. Alabama has long been known as a tour-de-force on the defensive side, but this particular unit has not been as much of a behemoth compared to their Crimson Tide predecessors. Could this be a major reason why bettors are flocking to Oklahoma's side of the 2018 Orange Bowl betting line?

Put Up or Shut Up Time for Bama Defense

Alabama coach Nick Saban knows what Riley and Oklahoma will attempt to accomplish on Dec. 29. What’s worrying him is whether his defense is up to the task. While in most seasons the Crimson Tide has relied on its defenders to win football games, Alabama’s leaned on its offense this season.

That could be by design, but most Alabama fans don’t think so. Most believe that the defense just hasn’t lived up to expectations. It certainly didn’t in the SEC Championship where Georgia scored 28. Allowing Auburn to score 21 in the Iron Bowl no doubt also caused mass fear among the Tide faithful.

The problem for Saban is that it’s not easy enough for him to tell his players to just step it up. It's not as straightforward to remind his players that they are better because against Oklahoma, better is a relative term.

There’s being better in terms of physical talent, and Alabama’s defense might be more physically talented than Murray and Oklahoma. But, no matter what strategy Bama comes up with, his players must react to Murray and the Sooners. That reaction is where Riley and the Sooners take advantage. Alabama must react to the uniqueness, not the norm, because there’s nothing normal about Oklahoma. It’s difficult for any defense to do that even with nearly a month's preparation.

Perhaps the biggest sign that things are going well for Alabama's defense in the 2018 Orange Bowl will be the presence of field goals. They have to employ a standard "bend but don't break" philosophy. Of course, that's easier said than done. Especially against Kyler Murray.

2018 Orange Bowl Trends & Analysis

The line’s only moved half a point from Alabama -13.5 to -14. There’s a good chance the line moves south until Bama’s a -13 favorite. The betting’s going toward the Sooners, because the 2018 Orange Bowl has one of the biggest spreads in the entire post-season.

The trends tell us Alabama’s got a slight edge. The Crimson Tide are 5-0 ATS in their last 5 after allowing more than 280 yards passing in their previous, 4-1 ATS versus a team with a winning record, and 13-6 ATS in their last 19 following an ATS loss. The Sooners are 1-4 ATS in their last 5 following an ATS win, 1-5 ATS in their last 6 after allowing less than 100 rushing yards in their previous, and 3-9 ATS in their last 12 at a neutral site.

Trends point to Alabama finding a way to cover. The key is how well the Bama defenders handle Oklahoma’s unique option-read system. Saban’s had time to come up with the right game plan, which is meaningful, especially when you consider that Riley's game plan of adapting to what the defense gives them has backfired in the playoffs before. It's one of those systems that works in the regular season, but at some point you have to have an identity that is not simply a reflection of who you are playing against.

In this year’s Orange Bowl, Alabama should prove why they’re favored to win the National Championship, and why this spread is so large to begin with.

CFP Semifinal Orange Bowl Betting Free Pick: Alabama -14