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Previewing the Orange Bowl: The Oklahoma Offense

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The Sooners and Heisman winner Kyler Murray present the greatest challenge Alabama has faced to date.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Texas vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If the Tide are to take home yet another national title, they will first have to outscore what has been the most prolific offense in the country this season. The Sooners, led by Heisman winner Kyler Murray and an elite offensive line, basically do everything well and have an outstanding playcaller in Lincoln Riley. How good is Riley’s offense? Before the season, Kirk Herbstreit reported that nearly every NFL team checked in with him about the scheme.

What makes Oklahoma’s offense unique, besides the eye-popping dual threat ability of Murray, is the ability to seamlessly transition from gap to zone blocking. The Sooners routinely pull backside guards and tackles, and even use counter trey motion as window dressing for play action. This is somewhat risky since pulling a tackle leaves the potential for a defensive lineman to get a free shot at Murray should he sniff it out, but it also provides an outstanding constraint in freezing the backside linebacker when they do hand the ball off, which creates a numbers advantage on the front. The Big 12 offenses are known for their small, quick skill players and Air Raid concepts, but this Oklahoma team is willing and able to line up and run right at you.

Of course, the Sooners do get plenty of explosive plays off of the RPO game that you see across the country at this point, packaging Air Raid passing concepts with zone runs. The most important keys to executing RPOs are an offensive line that communicates well to prevent immediate penetration while zone blocking and a QB who is able to make quick reads, with an equally quick and accurate release. The Sooners check both boxes here.

You can check out the Sooners’ full depth chart for the Orange Bowl HERE.

The key players:

Quarterback

#1 Kyler Murray - 5’10” 195 lb. RS Jr.

NCAA Football: Heisman Trophy Presentation Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t much left to say about Murray that hasn’t already been said. He is an elite athlete with reported 4.3 speed, is very difficult to corral when he scrambles, makes quick decisions and throws the ball accurately. He threw for over 4000 yards and 40 TDs with only seven interceptions and added another 892 yards and 11 scores on the ground. As Saban has said for years, true dual threat QBs can drive a defense crazy because they manage to find ways to move the chains even when the defense does everything right. Last season the Tide faced Kelly Bryant in the semifinals, but like many running QBs he was a dual threat in name only. Murray’s ability with his arm makes it virtually impossible to roll up extra defenders into the box.

Still, Alabama’s ability to wrangle Bryant last season should provide some hope for the Tide defense since it was primarily the front four, and particularly Anfernee Jennings, getting the job done. Murray has come a long way since his freshman year, but back in 2015 we saw him struggle to shake SEC defenders like Jennings who combine a bit more length and athleticism than Murray routinely sees in conference play. We don’t need Maury Povich to discern that Kyler’s listed height is a lie. If Saban stays true to his roots, you will see a disciplined four man two-gap look, with the goal to trap Murray while taking away his vision downfield and neutralizing his run game before it can get going, paired with an athletic spy who is capable of getting Murray on the ground in space should he get loose. Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson are your most likely candidates there. In any event, Murray presents a challenge like none the Tide defenders have faced this season.

Running Backs

#4 Trey Sermon - 6’0” 224 lb. So.

#26 Kennedy Brooks - 5’11” 205 lb. RS Fr.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Sermon is still listed as the starter here and, as you may imagine by his size, he is a bruiser, but it was Brooks (above) who took over as the bellcow down the stretch. Both players are former four-star recruits who are more than capable of moving the chains, but Kennedy is significantly more explosive as evidenced by his gaudy 1,021 yards and 9.0 per carry on the season. Oklahoma uses two fullbacks, #45 Carson Meier and #27 Jeremiah Hall, but they are essentially in 11 or 21 personnel almost exclusively as Meier plays more of a flex/H-Back role. When Hall comes into the game, you will typically see him lined up as fullback while Meier is deployed in a traditional tight end alignment.

Pass Catchers

#5 Marquise Brown - 5’10” 168 lb. Jr.

#2 CeeDee Lamb - 6’2” 189 lb. So.

#84 Lee Morris - 6’2” 212 lb. RS Jr.

#80 Grant Calcaterra - 6’4” 221 lb. So.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Texas vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma has no shortage of skill players but make no mistake, “Hollywood” Brown (above) is the star here. Brown is basically a clone of Jaylen Waddle and provides a glimpse of what may be to come for the Tide freshman, totaling 75 catches for 1318 yards and 10 TDs. He is also an amazing story, overcoming odds starting at birth to become the projected first round talent that he is today. As you undoubtedly know, he went down with what looked like a fairly severe lower leg injury in the Big 12 title game. Riley has been completely mum on Brown’s status for the game, simply saying that he’s “hopeful” that Brown will get to play. Unlike Tua Tagovailoa, however, we haven’t seen any video of Brown practicing. Losing him would be a major blow to the Sooners’ chances.

Lamb is a very good receiver in his own right, more prototypical in size with plenty of ability. He would be the de facto star should Brown not be able to go. He has hauled in 57/1049/10 on the season. Morris and TE Calcaterra are both big targets who show up primarily in the red zone, with 14 combined TDs on only 46 receptions between them.

Fun fact: Calcaterra is a fraternal triplet, and his sister plays soccer at Kansas State.

Offensive Line

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Tide will have its hands full with this unit. Anchored by future NFL picks Bobby Evans (above), Cody Ford and Ben Powers, all multi-year starters, these guys flat out get the job done. They were recently given the Joe Moore award as the best group in the nation and routinely open holes inside while keeping Murray clean in the pass game. As mentioned, they are equally adept at zone and man blocking, and Riley is not afraid to pull any of them.

Summary

Bottom line, Alabama fans hoping to see the Tide come out and thoroughly dominate this offense should probably stock up on the Maalox. Alabama is favored by two scores, but that has more to do with what seems to be a terrible mismatch when Tua and company are on the field. This offense is littered with stars, has one of the top trigger men in the business and arguably the best young offensive mind in the game calling the shots. It’s not a matter of if they will move the ball and score, but how many times the Tide will be able to rise up and stop them. If Alabama can keep them from scoring on roughly half of their possessions, things should work out well for the Tide, but this game is probably going to end in a score that will make a lot of Alabama football traditionalists a bit uncomfortable.