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Hope for the Best: Oklahoma edition

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In this battle of gridiron bluebloods, this time the Tide won’t be outgunned offensively. But can the Bama defense stop Kyler Murray and his offense?

Oklahoma State v Oklahoma
Can Alabama’s defense stop a historically-dominant Sooner offense led by Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray?
Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

Historically, Oklahoma has been the bane of the Alabama Crimson Tide’s existence.

In five previous meetings, the Tide has a single win. That’s one of the worst records in Alabama’s long and storied history against a team it has played at least five times.

The three previous battles in the last 20 years featuring the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Oklahoma Sooners were simple, clear-cut affairs. In each contest, it was the potent, high-octane offense of the Sooners versus Bama’s tried-and-trusted defense. Alabama lost a road game to Oklahoma in 2002, the final year of the Franchione regime, and in Mike Shula’s inaugural season in 2003, Bama dropped another game at home to the Sooners. The most recent debacle featured an unmotivated, sloppy performance in the 2014 Sugar Bowl in which the Tide defense was resoundingly slapped around by an Oklahoma offense with a freshman under center.

Despite one lone Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma following the 1962 season, Alabama has generally rolled snake-eyes against their fellow crimson-clad zealots from the West. If there was ever a time for the Tide to notch a second win in their favor, it would be now. After all, a continued path to a national championship hangs in the balance for the winner. Though Bama and OU have played several games in the past, never have the stakes been higher.

An interesting feature of this match-up will be the break with tradition. Where the game has usually pitted Big 12 offensive firepower against SEC man-ball defense, this year could devolve into a historical gunfight. The two teams bring two of the nation’s best offenses to the fray, with Oklahoma and Alabama ranked first and seventh respectively in total offense and first (OU) and second (Bama) in scoring O. The two teams also rank first (OU) and second (Bama) in offensive S&P+, and first (Bama) and second (OU) in Offensive Success Rate. The offenses are led by the Heisman Trophy winner in Kyler Murray and runner-up Tua Tagovailoa. Both teams have wide receiver and running back rosters that feature multiple future NFL players, and they bring two of the nation’s best offensive lines to the battle.

In other words, few match-ups in recent memory have featured more potential for offensive fireworks than the Orange Bowl. That said, it may be a defense that ends up proving the difference in the game. There’s no doubt both teams will score points and move the ball. The real question is which defense will be able to muster stops when it counts, as winning this game will likely hinge upon which defense can give its offense the most chances to succeed.

Is Alabama’s defense up to the task of stopping one of history’s best offenses? Can the Oklahoma D find some way to parlay the nation’s worst pass defense into a winning effort? Will either offense be able to establish a balanced attack? Or will both teams rely on the explosive passing game to keep pace on the scoreboard?

These and many more questions await. Let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Oklahoma defense

It’s not an understatement to say that overall, Oklahoma may very well have the worst Power 5 defense in the nation. Think about the width and breadth of that statement for a moment. Of all 129 teams in the country…think about the doormats that are included in that number…Oklahoma’s defense may be at the bottom of the proverbial trough. That’s hard to fathom for a team that is contending for a spot in the National Championship Game. The fact OU is in the top four is a testament to the strength of the Sooner offense to be sure, but when one delves into the stats, it’s shocking that a team in the top four could have a defense that is so incredibly abysmal in so many ways.

Let’s look at some evidence. While the Sooners’ best statistical ranking offensively is 14th (in red zone offense, surprisingly), the defense resides in the bottom two-thirds of all teams. They’re 108th in total defense (448.1 yards per game allowed), 129th (dead last) in pass defense allowing 291.4 yards per game, 53rd in run defense (156.7 yards per game), 96th in scoring defense (32.4 points per game), 112th in third-down defense (45.2 percent conversion rate allowed), 63rd in sacks (28), 67th in tackles for loss (77), 105th in pass efficiency defense, and 128th in red zone defense (93.36 percent conversion rate allowed).

Those stats are shockingly bad. When one thinks of the worst defenses Alabama has played this season, teams that the Tide splattered for more than 50 points in the first half of the 2018 campaign, you must understand that this Oklahoma defense is worse statistically than any of those paltry units.

One could claim that the poor defensive raw numbers are indicative of the high quality of offense played in the Big 12. However, the advanced stats would indicate that’s not the case at all. The Sooners rank 89th in defensive S&P+, 83rd in defensive success rate, 68th in IsoPPP+, 53rd in run defense S&P+, 91st in pass defense S&P+, 95th on Standard Downs, 67th on Passing Downs, and 88th in Havoc.

No matter how you slice it, the Oklahoma defense is terrible. They’ve brought in blue chip five-star recruits on defense, they’ve ditched former DC Mike Stoops and replaced him with former ECU head coach Ruffin McNeil, they’ve shifted from their old 3-4 to a simpler 4-3…and yet, the results continue to be horrific. The problems are myriad. It’s not about scheme or personnel, as neither of those factors in a vacuum can create the type of poor performance displayed by the Sooners in 2018. The fundamentals are shoddy, the application of the defense is lackadaisical, the play-calling has been uninspired, players are out of position in coverage and are beaten often…the list goes on. The only positive is that their run defense is middlin,’ but even the run defense got raked by football powerhouse Kansas for 348 yards and 9.7 yards per carry earlier this season.

As good as the Oklahoma offense is, their defense is equally as bad. That is a problem for the Sooners, as Alabama’s strengths line up well with the glaring weaknesses of the Sooner D. The Tide has a bevy of elite receivers and running backs who can dump truck the athletic, smallish Sooner linebackers and steamroll their secondary at the second level. Alabama’s O line should win the battle in the trenches on almost every play, as they are physical where Oklahoma shies towards finesse (and even that approach has been inconsistent at best). Oklahoma is a defense that is built to stop flashy, spread and Air Raid type offenses, and they don’t even do that with aplomb.

Alabama has the benefit of a flashy spread offense, but they also can shred teams on the ground with three future NFL backs in the wings and a brutally physical front. Tua Tagovailoa has mastered the art of the RPO, and against a defense he needs not fear, he will dial up a devastating iteration of Mike Locksley’s playbook. The Sooners will find it hard to match the speed and physicality of the Tide offense, and even if by some miracle they have found their defensive legs in the last three weeks, they’ll struggle to consistently get stops against the Tide.

Expect Alabama to throw early and often to create openings for the running game later. The Tide will run a lot of plays at the Oklahoma defense to create shock and awe, and that is a tactic that will create offensive leverage for Bama later in the game. Alabama is ranked second nationally in third-down conversion rate, and that will be a key facet of the Tide’s performance early on. Oklahoma ranks near the bottom in that metric (112th in third-down D), and if the Sooners can’t stop Alabama from stringing together drives, then there’s no way that Oklahoma can win, no matter how potent their offense may be.

The Sooners aren’t a potentially opportunistic bunch when it comes to turnovers, as they’ve only generated 11 all season long (six interceptions, five fumbles). Alabama is a team that doesn’t turn the ball over much (13 lost), so that potential vector to success for the Oklahoma defense is a pipe dream at best.

So, if the Sooners can’t muster a rigid third-down defense and don’t generate turnovers, how can they stop Alabama’s offense? They can’t. They haven’t stopped teams with half the firepower the Tide brings to bear, and they won’t shut down Tua and the Tide offense, either.

In fact, the best hope for the Oklahoma defense is self-destructive behavior from the Alabama offense. In a few games this season (the most recent match-up with Georgia being one of them), the Tide offense looked lethargic and out of synch, committing uncharacteristic drive-killing penalties, dropping passes, and failing to convert easy third-downs. If Alabama returns to those sins against Oklahoma, it could create opportunities for the Sooner offense to rally ahead on the scoreboard. That would be a problem for Alabama, as there’s no guarantee that the Tide defense will shut down the electric attack of Oklahoma, and even a one touchdown margin could leave the Tide in a horserace on the scoreboard and create an avenue to victory for OU.

The key for the Tide is to simply do what they do best. Alabama can easily attack the Sooners in the passing game, as a combination of poor play, unimaginative coverages, and underwhelming fundamental execution has earned Oklahoma’s rank as the nation’s worst pass defense. If Alabama comes out inspired on offense, they will absolutely shred the Sooner defense through the air. As the game wears on, the running game will pick up traction, and from there Alabama should have a legitimate chance of scoring on every possession.

The Alabama defense against the Oklahoma offense

This is where the game will most likely be won or lost. As certain as it appears that the Tide, barring offensive collapse, will run the Oklahoma defense out of the building on Saturday night, the battle between the Oklahoma O and Bama D is much more nebulous.

The Sooner offense is a known commodity. They have a Heisman winner under center in the electrifying, dual-threat uber-talent of Murray (5-10, 195 pounds). They have surprisingly physical backs in sophomore Trey Sermon (6-0, 224 pounds), freshman Kennedy Brooks (5-11, 205 pounds), and T.J. Pledger (5-9, 200 pounds) who can catch as well as they run. They have a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in sophomore CeeDee Lamb (6-2, 189 pounds) and junior Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (5-10, 168 pounds). The Sooner O line is massive and athletic, averaging 316 pounds across the board with three seniors, a junior, and a freshman. Stopping the Sooner offense is a tall task, indeed, and it’s questionable whether the 2018 Alabama defense is built well enough to accomplish it.

It’s not that Alabama defense is weak, by any stretch. The front, led by nose Quinnen Williams, is ferocious. The outside linebackers have progressed through the season, with Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller playing their best ball of their careers in the last third of the season. While inside linebacker play remains a work in progress, the defensive backfield has been pretty stellar, with Deionte Thompson, Xavier McKinney, Patrick Surtain Jr., and Shyheim Carter leading a dependable rotation that has walked through the fire and emerged better prepared for what Oklahoma will serve them.

That said, to think that the Tide will shut down Oklahoma’s offense altogether takes a good bit of Gumpish cognitive dissonance. The offense that will line up across from the Tide on Saturday is by far the best unit the Tide has faced to date. They rank no lower than 14th in any statistical category, including first in total offense (577.9 yards per game) and scoring offense (49.5 points per game). And they are first or second in every advanced metric as calculated by footballoutsiders.com. They are first in Offensive S&P+, second in offensive Success Rate, first in IsoPPP+ (a measure of explosiveness), first in rushing S&P+, second in passing S&P+, first on Standard Downs, and second on Passing Downs.

In other words, this isn’t Mississippi State or LSU or even Georgia that the Tide will be asked to stop this weekend. Oklahoma is a historically great offense with a Heisman winner under center and an offensive Brainiac in Lincoln Riley at the helm. The Alabama defense will be in uncharted waters when they face the Sooner offense, to be sure.

But if any team has the raw materials to slow, if not stop completely, the Oklahoma juggernaut, it’s Alabama. The Tide struggled against the UGA offense in its last game but take that with a grain of salt. The new Tide defense constructed by Nick Saban is built to stop the type of offense the Sooners run. It’s anti-spread, anti-quick strike, and anti-speed. Whereas Saban’s defenses prior to 2015 were lumbering, bruising siege engines of attrition, the current defensive unit can flex on a dime thanks to speed and athleticism. The Tide defense is still physical thanks to Scott Cochran’s work in the weight room, but Alabama’s defenders are smaller and more agile. That was a liability against a bruising pro-style offense like the one UGA used in the first half of the SEC Championship Game against the Tide. Against a flashy, lightning-strike offense like Oklahoma, it will be a boon.

Remember, this Tide defense may not get the eye-test love of its statistically superior predecessors. However, Alabama emerged as a solid top-15 unit by year’s end. The Tide is ranked 10th in total defense (295.4 yards per game allowed), 13th in passing defense (178.4 yards per game allowed), 13th in passing efficiency defense, 18th in run defense (117.0 yards per game allowed), fourth in scoring defense (14.8 points per game allowed), sixth in sacks (42), 19th in tackles for loss (97), third in red zone defense (66.7 percent conversion rate allowed), and eighth in third-down defense (30.9 percent conversion rate allowed.

That bears out in the advanced metrics as well, with the Tide ranked eighth in defensive S&P+, first in defensive Success Rate, 72nd in IsoPPP+, fourth in rushing S&P+, seventh in passing S&P+, first on Standard Downs, 12th on Passing Downs, and second in Havoc.

So, while the Tide hasn’t faced an offense like Oklahoma’s this season, neither have the Sooners matched wits with a defense like the one they’ll face on Saturday. In fact, there isn’t a single Big 12 defense ranked in the top-20 in defensive S&P+. The highest ranked team the Sooners have faced was 23rd ranked TCU, followed by 31st ranked Iowa State. Third is Texas at 55th. Oklahoma will by far be the biggest challenge the Tide defense has faced to date, but the converse is just as true.

The first step in dealing with the Sooner offense is dealing with Murray. How should the Tide attack the mobile and dynamic athlete at QB for the Sooners? In the past, against similar talents like Johnny Manziel, the Tide defense used the “mush rush” technique to keep the quarterback in the pocket and prevent the big plays on scrambles when a defense can be stretched to weakness. Against other mobile quarterbacks, some defenses (past Alabama teams included) elect to “spy” the running quarterback threat with a dedicated defender who shadows the offensive playmaker.

Neither of those tactics will work against Murray and the Oklahoma defense. He is too good, and there are too many weapons on the field. Even if the injured Brown doesn’t play at 100% against Alabama, the Sooners have a cadre of receiving targets like Lamb and Lee Morris (6-2, 212 pounds), tight end Grant Calcaterra (6-4, 221 pounds), H-back Myles Tease (5-9, 171 pounds), and the aforementioned trio of talented backs. Like Alabama, the Sooners use an RPO-heavy offensive attack that is diverse and puts the QB’s hand on the tiller.

The only way to attack Murray in this offense is to disrupt his timing and force him out of his comfort zone. No one has done it to date, because most teams have been paralyzed by visions of Murray scrambling and making plays with his legs. Instead, they play conservatively, and by doing so, they place the scalpel in the hands of Murray the surgeon, who proceeds to cut the defense to pieces. With time, Murray will destroy most defensive schemes. Like Alabama’s own offense, there are too many weapons for a defense to cover them all, and Riley is brilliant when it comes to creating mismatches and exploiting defenders. A defense cannot…repeat, cannot…allow Murray to sit in the pocket and do his thing.

The only other option is to attack, and that’s what will give Alabama an edge over other defenses. Nick Saban, Tosh Lupoi, and Alabama’s defensive leaders know this game won’t end in a shutout. Oklahoma averages nearly 50 points per game, and there is no way Alabama’s defense will hold them scoreless in a quarter, let alone across an entire game. No defense could do that.

While that knowledge could be a little scary, it is also liberating. Alabama must be able to embody the Saban mantra of treating each play like it has a life…and death…of its own. Play to a standard on each play, and as soon as it’s over, put it away. Tide defenders simply cannot allow the last play to affect the next play. Against a team like Oklahoma, a team that will undoubtedly make their share of explosive plays, it will be critical for Alabama to shelve big plays and focus on the next down.

With that mindset, the next step will be all out, relentless aggression. Murray simply must be disrupted, so Alabama can’t sit on their heels. They must attack. To do this, they’ll need a big game from the front seven. Williams will be key, as he has proven himself the most disruptive force in college football this season. While the overall strength of the Oklahoma offensive line can’t be questioned, Alabama will draw its best match-up in Williams on the line’s only underclassman, true freshman center Creed Humphrey (6-5, 325 pounds). Humphrey is a monster and plays above his head, but he is facing the best defensive lineman in the country this Saturday. Oklahoma will no doubt have a plan to double Williams to help the freshman out but doing so will create some dangerous lanes for Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs, LaBryan Ray, Jennings, and Miller to exploit. The verdict is still out on Terrell Lewis, but if he can go and is as explosive as he’s been in the past, Alabama could create a critical mass even if the Sooners do a decent job of dealing with Williams.

The Tide will also need to borrow a page from the playbook of former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt was a master of dialing up blitzes from unconventional angles using defensive backs. Not only did such blitzes surprise quarterbacks, but the use of DBs could help diminish the athletic advantage dual-threat quarterbacks have over lumbering linemen. With the frenetic, pinball-like scrambling ability of Murray, Alabama would be well-served to manufacture a little pressure with the DBs and give the defense a chance to match its speed against Murray’s.

Pressuring Murray will provide mixed results, and he will make plays despite the Tide’s best efforts. It’s a well-known fact that the Tide inside linebackers struggle in coverage. Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses have progressed through the season, but they still represent a soft spot for offenses that have the skill talent to attack the slot and between the hashes in the no-man’s land zone. Riley will have a plan to exploit that, to be sure. He’ll sling it to the speedy slot receivers and hit the backs shallow to allow Murray to mitigate the pass rush and strike at the Tide’s interior underbelly. There will be plays made, and Alabama will have to roll with those punches and remain focused on the task at hand, namely, to continue to pressure Murray because doing so will minimize his opportunities at explosive plays.

There’s another key that comes down to technique that could produce frustration for the Sooner offense and Murray in particular. It’s no secret that Murray is diminutive compared to typical quarterback height. Measuring in at 5-10, Murray, even without pressure, must throw over a line that averages 6-5. While that hasn’t been too much of a problem for him to date, he also hasn’t felt the kind of pressure that the Tide front will generate. Alabama’s defenders are large, and D line coach Craig Kuligowski teaches them to get their hands up when engaged in pass pro. The Tide front seven has 24 batted passes this season, and if they can continue that trend against Murray, it will disrupt the Sooner offense and create negative plays that can help the Tide defense be even more aggressive in play-calling.

Turnovers could come into play. While Oklahoma isn’t loose with the football (they’ve lost 13 this season), Alabama is a ball-hawking defense that attempts to create positive plays through turnovers. Alabama has generated 21 turnovers this year, and even a turnover or two could be the difference between gaining an edge over Oklahoma or keeping it close.

With Alabama’s offense, the defense won’t have to win the game. It won’t be a white-knuckled, low-scoring defensive stress test for sure, because Oklahoma is too good to keep wholly in check. The task for the Alabama defense is to pressure Murray, survive the big plays and focus on the next, and get a few stops when opportunities present themselves. If the Bama D can do that, and the Tide offense does its part, then Alabama may very well move on to the next round to play for the championship.

While the previous battles between Bama and OU have largely pitched a prolific Big 12 offense versus a behemoth SEC defense, the Orange Bowl match-up will boast two of the best offenses in the country. Alabama has been 1-4 in those contests, and the Tide would like nothing more than to add another notch to the win column on the Orange Bowl stage.

While most are focused on the offenses, it is the defenses that will decide the tone and timbre of the match-up. The word out of Norman throughout December has been that the Sooners are unapologetic about the horrendous defensive play they’ve produced this season and think that despite their defensive flaws, they shouldn’t be underdogs against the top-ranked Tide. The Sooners have had several weeks to game plan for the Tide offense, and though they’ve not improved through the last half of the season, they think they can stop the Tide enough times to let Murray get them a lead.

On the other hand, Alabama’s defense must face down the tall task of slaying the dragon that is the Murray-led Sooner offense. If Brown, Oklahoma’s most prolific receiver, cannot play, that will benefit the Tide. But Alabama will be tested and stressed by what Riley has cooked up for them, and with Murray as the trigger man, things could get ugly if Alabama forgets to live in the moment and focus on the next play.

Will Alabama improve its all-time record against the Sooners to 2-4 by stopping one of college football’s most prolific offenses? Or will the Sooners be able to front-run the Tide en route to a spot in the National Championship Game? Can the Oklahoma defense get even a single stop against Alabama’s vaunted offense? Or will Tagovailoa prove to the world why he is the rightful owner of the Heisman? Can Jalen Hurts strep into the fray once again if Tagovailoa can’t go? Is the Oklahoma defense prepared for such a curveball?

These questions and many more will be answered soon. Hope for the best…