Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The 2018 Orange Bowl will showcase two of the strongest offenses in the game, pitting Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray against Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa.
Alabama hung on to the No. 1 seed throughout the 2018 season, remaining undefeated and winning the SEC Championship via a come-from-behind win over Georgia. Tagovailoa suffered an ankle injury during the game, which meant Jalen Hurts came in to lead the comeback. However, Tagovailoa has told reporters that he should be fine to play in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 29.
AL.com sports @aldotcomSports
Tua Tagovailoa said Wednesday he’s expected to be at full health for Alabama’s College Football Playoff semifinal game against Oklahoma https://t.co/0i4SSYHqZl https://t.co/iFLG2He04K
Oklahoma’s path to the Final Four wasn’t as clear-cut, as a midseason loss to Texas put the Sooners in the No. 7 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. They moved up to No. 6 after LSU lost to Alabama and then to No. 5 when Michigan dropped out of the top four. After a 39-27 win over Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game, Oklahoma was voted into the Final Four by the CFB selection committee.
No matter how the teams got to where they are, both Alabama and Oklahoma have equal chances to take the Orange Bowl and advance to the CFP National Championship.
Oklahoma Quarterback Kyler Murray vs. Alabama Free Safety Deionte Thompson and Defensive Tackle Quinnen Williams
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Murray overtook Tagovailoa to capture the 2018 Heisman Trophy. The junior boasts an incredible stat line, throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns on only seven interceptions.
In addition to a 70.9 percent completion rate, the dual-threat quarterback is the third-leading rusher on the team. Murray has run 892 yards and has 11 rushing touchdowns on the season, taking advantage of weak defensive lines to carry the ball himself.
The Crimson Tide will pose multiple threats to Murray’s offense. Alabama’s Quinnen Williams is ranked the No. 1 prospect for the 2019 NFL draft among the College Football Playoff teams. The sophomore is a dominant defensive player, with 66 total tackles, eight sacks and 11 quarterback hurries, according to 247Sports. Williams is a stout defender, ready to exploit the offensive line and take down Murray if he finds a gap.
On the passing front, the Crimson Tide has safety Deionte Thompson, who has the second-most total and solo tackles with 70 and 41, respectively. As a key part of Alabama’s defense, the junior also has two interceptions and three forced fumbles on the season. Thompson will pose a problem for Murray when he tries to move the ball down the field and make longer passes.
PFF College @PFF_College
Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa are two of only three QBs in the PFF College era to field a passer rating of over 140.0 from a clean pocket
That, and 9 other stats that could determine the outcome of the College Football Playoff: https://t.co/nLmD6kVucH https://t.co/90kF6KGkbA
Alabama Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa vs. Oklahoma Secondary
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
While this is not an individual matchup, it is important to highlight Tagovailoa and the damage he could do to Oklahoma’s defense.
His matchup is not with one single player but with the whole defense—more specifically the secondary. Oklahoma has one of the weaker defenses in college football, ranking at 108 as a total defense, according to NCAA.com. The Sooners allow 448.1 yards per game, which is dangerous against any team but could prove to be fatal against No. 1 Alabama.
Tagovailoa has thrown for 3,353 yards—with a long of 81 yards—and 37 touchdowns on only four interceptions. The sophomore, like Murray, has the ability to run as well, with 190 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
While Alabama has key defensive players to stop the force that is Murray, Oklahoma may not be able to do the same to Tagovailoa. The Sooners have given up more than 40 points in five games this year. Most notably, they had trouble stopping West Virginia—led by the equally dynamic Will Grier—and allowed the Mountaineers 56 points.
Although Oklahoma has linebackers and corner backs to help with wideouts and running backs, the safeties and defensive ends are going to struggle to contain Tagovailoa.
USA TODAY Sports @usatodaysports
Alabama is not allowing stats to change its feelings about the Oklahoma defense. https://t.co/iozjpXQc7a
Oklahoma Wide Receiver Marquise Brown vs. Alabama Cornerback Saivion Smith
Murray’s go-to receiver is Marquise Brown, a junior who leads the team in receiving yards and is tied for the most touchdowns with 10. Murray and Brown have a chemistry that allows the latter more flexibility in his routes, which Oklahoma’s offensive line makes possible by protecting Murray in the pocket.
Behind Brown is No. 2 receiver CeeDee Lamb, who also has 10 receiving touchdowns and has put up a little more than 1,000 yards.
Alabama has a strong defense that is going to make things more difficult for Oklahoma, and cornerback Saivion Smith plays a big role in that.
As an important member of Alabama’s secondary, Smith had the biggest game of his career against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, with 11 total tackles and eight solo tackles. The junior adds two interceptions—one of which he returned for a touchdown—and one forced fumble on the season.
While Smith had an incredible game against Georgia, his inconsistency throughout the season will make him a prime target for Murray to try to exploit.
Alabama Running back Damien Harris vs. Oklahoma linebackers Kenneth Murray and Curtis Bolton
As a senior on the team, Damien Harris has the experience of three Final Four wins, three CFP National Championship appearances and two championships.
The running back is no stranger to the big stage or pressure. Harris excelled in the 2017 season, with 11 rushing touchdowns, and while he put up yards in the Sugar Bowl and championship game, he failed to find the end zone.
With 771 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season, Harris has proved to be a reliable back despite not putting up explosive numbers. Harris should have more luck in this year’s bowl game against an Oklahoma team that has struggled to keep teams from scoring.
Ben Jones @BW_Jones
Oklahoma has given up 421 points in 13 games this season. To find 421 points given up by the Alabama defense, you have to add up the combined points allowed in the last 31 games, dating back to the 2016 Iron Bowl.
That being said, linebackers Kenneth Murray and Curtis Bolton could to be prove a challenge for the experienced back. The duo leads the team in total tackles and solo tackles—Murray leads the way with 140 total tackles and 64 solo tackles, and Bolton is in second with 130 total and 54 solo.
Each linebacker also has four sacks on the season. The two could make Harris’ rushing game more difficult, as he has not been able to consistently find the end zone this year.
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.