FORT LAUDERDALE – Oklahoma has the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, the best young offensive mind in college football calling plays and a unit that led the nation with 49.5 points per game this season. They are the country’s most dangerous, explosive and exciting team. And according to the oddsmakers, experts and coaches familiar with both teams, the No. 4 Sooners are hopelessly overmatched against No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal. “Top to bottom,” said an opposing coach familiar with Alabama, “this is the best overall team that they’ve ever had.”
That’s why Vegas has installed the Sooners as two-touchdown underdogs, a nod to a defense that ranks No. 96 nationally by giving up 32.4 points per game. They are also dead last in pass defense at 291.4 yards per game.
With the Orange Bowl looming on Saturday and an intriguing foil appearing across the field from the Crimson Tide, we recast the question that’s defined the season: Can anyone beat Alabama?
Spoiler alert: There was much more hyperbole for Alabama than optimism for Oklahoma.
“Alabama is the best overall team that I’ve seen, their offense is so electric,” said another opposing coach.
Here are five ways that scouts and opposing coaches think Alabama can be toppled:
1) Win the mental game
Another opposing assistant coach breaks down the reality of playing Alabama this way. “They don’t present a ton of weaknesses. They are either pretty good, really good or elite at every position.”
So what do you focus on? “You can’t let them beat you before the game starts,” the coach said. “It’s psychological. Sometimes you end up playing the logo. Remind the kids to play the game. You can’t beat yourself. You really have to play clean football to give yourself a chance to win.”
2) Beat them on special teams
An assistant coach who studied the Tide this season made this observation: “I think their special teams are not at the level of their offense and defense. You have to find a way to take advantage of one of their teams. They are good on all their coverage units, not great. You have to make something happen on special teams.”
Another coach flat-out called the special teams “a weakness” and “uncharacteristic” of a Saban-coached team. The statistics back it up, as their special teams efficiency rating is No. 81 overall.
Alabama punted just 38 times this year. (Oklahoma punted just 29). And the Tide isn’t very good at it. Senior Mike Bernier took over the starting punting job in October and has averaged just 37.9 yards per kick. Alabama is dead last in the country – No. 130 – in overall average yards per punt. The Tide is No. 120 in PAT kicking at 90.5 percent. They are No. 69 in field goal kicking, with Joseph Bulovas (12 for 16) and Austin Jones (1 for 2) combining to make 72.2 percent of their kicks this year.
If Oklahoma can keep the game close, we’ve seen poor field-goal kicking become the Achilles’ heel for Saban’s teams before. This edition certainly appears susceptible.
3) Figure out a way to slow down Tua
Speaking to coaches who’ve played Oklahoma, the clear weakness in their defense comes in the secondary. The entire secondary. The defensive line is decent and the linebackers are more than serviceable. But the secondary has been as horrible as being ranked No. 130 overall would indicate. Most coaches believe that Alabama could rout Oklahoma with backup Jalen Hurts, as the feeling is that Alabama’s defense will figure out a way to get a few stops.
With Tua Tagovailoa saying on Wednesday that his injured ankle is 80 to 85 percent, Alabama appears poised to exploit the porous Oklahoma defense.
“Alabama is a very balanced team,” said an opposing coach. “The quarterback makes such a difference for them. His ability to throw the ball accurately to wide receivers who are tough to cover, it forces you to not commit resources to the run. And that makes their run game that much more effective.”
4) Use Alabama’s aggressiveness against them
One opposing offensive coach pointed out that teams have had success against the Tide this season – or relative success – by taking advantage of their aggressiveness. One pointed out that they often “green dog” their linebackers, which means a late blitz from a linebacker who was supposed to pick up a running back. Multiple teams this season were able to puncture the Alabama defense by hitting said running back. (He’s often free, especially in man coverage.)
Another proven Bama antidote is that the Tide’s aggressive front is susceptible to screens in the middle of the field.
“We felt like we could take advantage of their interior pass rush and use it against them,” said the coach. “Take advantage and get some screens in behind them. That’s where teams got yards.”
The coach also said they studied all of their own tendencies heading into the game and broke them – be it percentage of run plays on first down, third-and-short play-call preferences or favorite blitzes. They knew Alabama would have their tendencies so well scouted that they often did the opposite of what they were comfortable doing to throw Alabama off-balance.
5) What else can Lincoln Riley do?
Opposing coaches have found running up the middle into the teeth of the Tide defense has proven futile. What’s worked? Look for Kyler Murray to run bootlegs, as opposing coaches have found success with the play, and none have quarterbacks as dynamic as Murray. Some teams, including Arkansas, had success running to the edge on speed sweeps, which could be a concept that the Sooners try and follow. Another coach recommended running outside gap schemes, which some teams have had success with. One coach said they targeted junior college defensive end Isaiah Buggs as the most vulnerable member of Alabama’s typically stacked defensive line. “That was maybe the weakness,” the coach said of the All-SEC second-team lineman. “I knew they were sound in the middle.”
The explosiveness of Alabama’s historic offense, ranked No. 2 nationally in points, has obscured the fact that the Tide’s defense is a smidge below the lofty standards coach Nick Saban has set over the years. That’s crazy, as Alabama is No. 10 nationally in total defense (295.4 ypg) and No. 4 in scoring defense (14.8 ppg). But the teams that have faced Alabama in the Saban era do say this unit lags slightly behind the others. Alabama’s ability to score has rendered opposing offenses as predictable, which has helped the Tide defense.
The offensive coaches agreed that the Tide were more susceptible to be beaten through the air than on the ground, which played out in the SEC title game. Georgia nearly beat Alabama in that game with a balanced attack, as they ran for 153 yards and threw for 301.
It will be up to Murray and Riley to find similar magic.
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