In the evening hours Saturday, Josh Jacobs wore a relaxed smile after Alabama’s thrilling 35-28 victory over Georgia in the SEC championship game.
The Crimson Tide running back had survived the drama, the suspense and the wild nature of this football slugfest. Now, he could sit back and wait to find out Alabama’s opponent in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
With a perfect 13-0 record, Alabama didn’t have to fret as it did last year at this very same time. Back then, it missed out on the SEC title game because of a loss at Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Tide’s fate was unclear and no one knew if Alabama would play for its 17th national championship. But the CFP committee that determines these things decided to include Alabama among the final four teams — leaving Ohio State twisting in the wind.
“It’s always good when you don’t have to worry, when you don’t leave it up to nobody’s hands,” Jacobs said. “We are writing our own destiny. Whoever we play next, execute and stay disciplined.”
That team will be Oklahoma and the venue will be Hard Rock Stadium — site of the Orange Bowl.
Both the opponent and the site of Alabama’s next game remained uncertain up until the final reveal. But when the Sooners snuck in as a No. 4 seed, it was obvious that top-ranked Alabama would play in South Florida — far from the big Oklahoma alumni base located in Dallas-Fort Worth, where the other semifinal will be staged at the Cotton Bowl.
The logistics surrounding Alabama’s matchup with Oklahoma offered the first bit of intrigue on a day when there was no team watch party in Tuscaloosa. In the weeks to come, there will be plenty more to whet the appetite. After all, this will be a showdown involving the two leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy — the Tide’s Tua Tagovailoa and the Sooners’ Kyler Murray.
Murray captains an offense that puts up outrageous numbers. The Sooners lead the nation in scoring, averaging 49.5 yards per game. They have also covered the most ground, moving the ball an FBS-best 7,513 yards in 13 games.
But on the way to making eye-popping gains, the Sooners have also struggled to stop their opponents. They have allowed an average of 32.4 points, hemorrhaging big plays and touchdowns. And in the process, they have morphed into some cartoonish version of a Big 12 team.
Alabama, meanwhile, has maintained its defensive integrity even as it has added firepower, changed its identity and dealt with the loss of six starters in its secondary this offseason. As it navigated a challenging schedule that got tougher as the season wore on, the Tide allowed only 14.8 points per game — the fourth-best average in the country.
On the surface, Alabama looks to be a more complete outfit than Oklahoma does.
It’s why on Sunday there was very little suspense in Tuscaloosa and plenty of it 703 miles away in Norman, Okla.
The Tide knew it had punched its ticket to the playoff. Alabama just had to wait see who it would face and where it would play its next game.
It was a nice feeling for a change, as Jacobs would attest.
Rainer Sabin is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin