Butch Dill/Associated Press
As the stars of the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide and No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners make their rounds on the college football awards circuit, the focus of both programs is slowly shifting toward the Orange Bowl and nothing else.
Of the utmost importance is the health of Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, whose ankle was in a boot at Thursday night’s College Football Awards ceremony in Atlanta.
When he’s joined by Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City on Saturday, Tagovailoa is sure to face questions about his health, especially if he wins and takes off on a whirlwind press tour.
The game itself will be impacted by Tagovailoa’s health, but whether he starts or combines to take snaps with SEC Championship hero Jalen Hurts remains to be determined.
Even if Tagovailoa isn’t at full strength, the Crimson Tide are still going to start the game as the heavy favorites, and they could end up with the largest spread of bowl season.
Orange Bowl Odds (via OddsShark)
Spread: Alabama -14
Money Line: Alabama (-570; Bet $570 to win $100); Oklahoma (+470; Bet $100 to win $470)
Alabama 35, Oklahoma 28
Putting together a defensive game plan to silence the opposing offense is going to be difficult for both teams.
From Oklahoma’s perspective, it could be trickier if Tagovailoa’s status is still up in the air in the final week building up to the Orange Bowl.
On his trips to Atlanta and New York City this week, Tagovailoa has been accompanied by Alabama’s head trainer Jeff Allen in order to take the best care of his injured ankle.
Despite rolling around on a scooter and having a boot on his ankle, the left-handed sophomore is confident he’ll play in the Orange Bowl, per AL.com’s Michael Casagrande.
“All I know is I will be back for the game,” Tagovailoa said Friday. “I’m feeling a lot better. Thank God we have Jeff Allen.”
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Even if Tagovailoa is ready to go, the Crimson Tide should utilize Hurts in some situations to throw off the Oklahoma defense.
The first quarter in Miami will be difficult for Tagovailoa, as he gets a feel for how much he can push himself with the ankle knock, but once he gets comfortable, he’ll be able to throw a few touchdown passes.
Tagovailoa will also be aided by the Crimson Tide’s effective rushing attack headlined by Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs.
On offense, the Sooners must get off to a fast start with Murray using his legs to extend drives and put points on the board.
Murray isn’t the only rushing threat Alabama must prepare for, as Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon are more than capable of gashing through a defense as well.
Alonzo Adams/Associated Press
The key for Alabama is to get pressure out of its front seven, with Quinnen Williams leading the initial push on the line followed by the linebackers wrapping up to hold the Sooners to minimal gains.
If the Crimson Tide can make the Sooners as one dimensional possible by thwarting the run, they can focus on getting pressure in the pocket and forcing Murray into a bad decision or two.
Because he’s so skilled, Murray will make a few big plays with his legs, but the majority of them should happen in the first half before Alabama makes the necessary adjustments at halftime.
In the second half, Tagovailoa and Hurts will each make a difference-making play against a Sooners defense that’s allowed at least 27 points in each of the last five games.
The Crimson Tide won’t cover, but that won’t matter to Saban and his players, as they walk out of the Orange Bowl with an opportunity to repeat as national champions.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90