Orange Bowl Preview: Heisman Candidates Wage War in the Limelight

2021 Orange Bowl Preview
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This Saturday at 8:00 PM EST, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Oklahoma Sooners face off in the Orange Bowl. The winner goes on to the National Championship game. The loser goes home. And even though it will be a total team effort for both winner and loser, all eyes will be on the quarterbacks. Indeed, the top two Heisman candidates will wage war in the limelight in Miami, Florida. ESPN will televise the battle live.

The Heisman Candidates

There is no denying that Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa posted two of the best statistical seasons (if not the two best seasons) in the history of college football. In any other year, either of these quarterbacks would have run away with the Heisman. In fact, absent those seasons, the third and fourth best candidates (Dwayne Haskins and Will Grier) would have run away with it, too. These two are just really, really good.

That Tagovailoa has played the position so masterfully should have any team scared of Alabama. We all know the deal Nick Saban made many, many years ago. Alabama could have multiple first round picks at every position so long as Alabama doesn’t have a quarterback. Well, there goes that. The Crimson Tide still feature a depth chart littered with future first round picks and NFL pro bowlers. The Tide is so deep, in fact, that the recent suspensions we covered here mean very little to the outcome. The difference with this year’s version of the Tide? They have a quarterback, too (two of them, in fact).

The Sooners, however, feature the most efficient offense of all time. That is not an exaggeration. At least, it doesn’t feel like one. Oklahoma averaged 8.75 yards per play. The next closest team was in the 6’s. Kyler Murray‘s passer rating is in the stratosphere at 205.7. Lincoln Riley has trotted out two successive Heisman Trophy winners, and this year’s offense is even better than last. The only blip on the radar was a game in which Army held the ball for over 44 minutes and still lost. The Sooners only ran 40 plays and still averaged 8.9 yards per play. This unit isn’t scared of Alabama, even with Tagovailoa on the other side.

The Crimson Tide

Alabama has a pretty good offense, too. Saban has adopted more of a spread offense than he ever has before, and it has worked out pretty well. Alabama finished the season fifth in total offense and second in scoring offense. Their quarterback rarely ever played into the fourth quarter. Their backup quarterback, Jalen Hurts, has been pretty good, too. In fact, his rating is just a hair better than Tagovailoa’s. Alabama’s top five targets each average over 17 yards per reception, and the two top playmakers, Jerry Jeudy, and Jaylen Waddle, have been household names.

For all the fuss about Alabama’s passing game, though, they have still run the ball well. Damien Harris and Najee Harris both logged over 100 carries and both averaged over six yards per carry. Josh Jacobs finished a bunch of drives, too, finding the end zone 11 times on the ground over 94 carries. In total, the Crimson Tide rushed for over 2,600 yards and 31 touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Thus, while they may not have featured the run-heavy game they have been known for, Alabama still has the ability.

Defensively, the Crimson Tide have been dominant as well, surrendering under 15 points per game, good for 4th in the country. Only three teams have scored more than 21 points against Alabama. After one of those games, a 34-point victory over Arkansas, Nick Saban lost his mind. Maybe that game is why the defense hasn’t felt quite as dominant as it has in past years. That said, the defense is more than capable of shutting a team down.

The Sooners

The Sooners’ defense, on the other hand, has been bad. It has given up 40 or more points five times. In total, it has surrendered 32.4 points per game. It performed so poorly that Oklahoma fired a Stoops (Mike) this year. That is a pretty big deal.

As maligned as the defense has been, though, it has saved the Sooners’ season two weeks in a row. Against a very good West Virginia team, the Sooners widened the gap to a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter after a 48-yard scoop and score by Curtis Bolton. The Sooners then held the Mountaineers to a three and out on the next drive preserving the 10-point lead halfway into the fourth quarter.

Then, in the Big XII Championship Game, the Sooners fumbled with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter holding a slim 30-27 lead over the Longhorns. Two plays later, the Sooners brought pressure against Sam Ehlinger and forced a safety. After scoring on the next drive, the Sooners vaulted to a 39-27 lead with 2:00 left in the fourth quarter. Again, the Sooners’ defense secured a victory.

With this big-play capability, the Sooners’ defense has been able to do just enough to allow the star of its show–the offense–to win 12 games. And, even though Murray has grabbed the headlines, his supporting cast is pretty good, too. The offensive line has been one of the best in the country. Kennedy Brooks averages nine yards per carry on the ground. Trey Sermon averages six. Lee Morris averages 21.8 yards per reception. And both Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb have over 1,000 yards receiving with ten touchdowns each. Simply, the big play can come from anywhere in this offense.

The Prediction

Even though Alabama has found a game-breaking passing game this season, the only team to hold Oklahoma under 30 points was Army. And Army pulled that off by running for 339 yards while holding the ball for nearly 45 minutes. Alabama still has a deep stable of traditional running backs, so expect Saban to offer a heavy dose of old-school Crimson Tide football early.

That said, Oklahoma is simply too explosive to slow down. It does not take long to score. Indeed, it put up 66 points the week after the Army game even though it possessed the ball only 22 minutes. Riley’s offense is simply too efficient to hold down. As a result, this will end up being a nail-biter. And in this unpredictable season, we guess that the Sooners will steal this one from the Tide by a final score of 41-40.