Orange Bowl Preview: Battle of Heisman Hopefuls Takes Center Stage in Alabama–Oklahoma

By the time Oklahoma and Alabama meet in Miami Gardens, one of their quarterbacks will have a Heisman Trophy to his name.
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ATLANTA — Jalen Hurts touched his fingers to his lips and extended his arm to a rocking Crimson-clad crowd. Alabama’s hero made grown women cry with blown kisses following the Crimson Tide’s 35–28 comeback win over Georgia in the SEC championship game here Saturday night, which put them in a position they had been ticketed for—the No. 1 overall seed in the College Football Playoff against No. 4 seed Oklahoma. The Sooners needed to avenge their only regular season loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game, outdueling the Longhorns 39–27 to earn the respect of the committee, which slotted them in ahead of the Bulldogs.

Now, this season’s two most prolific quarterbacks and high-powered offenses are set to clash in the Orange Bowl with a national championship appearance on the line. For Alabama, it’s a chance to continue one of the best seasons in college football history; for Oklahoma, it’s an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong: Can their Big 12 offense remain explosive against an SEC defense?

Storyline you’ll get tired of before kickoff

The Big 12–SEC clash of styles. Oklahoma and its explosive offense is up against its toughest defensive test of the season. The Crimson Tide ranks ninth nationally in total defense, allowing 295.4 yards a game, or about half of what the nation-leading Sooners average an outing (577.9). But this isn’t your older brother’s SEC champion. Alabama can score, too. The Tide sit seventh nationally in total offense and have set a bevy of SEC offensive records. Get ready for four weeks of hypotheticals about how each side’s best unit would have performed against the other’s league competition.

One-on-one matchup to watch

Tua Tagovailoa vs. Kyler Murray. These two Heisman Trophy front-runners get to take their statistical battle to the field, well after the top individual prize in football is handed out. While they won’t directly be competing against each other, Murray and Tagovailoa will no doubt be attempting to one-up the other. In all likelihood, one will have the hardware and the other will have finished runner-up. Neither side has been shy about publicly comparing the two quarterbacks. The Sooners posted their latest Heisman campaign material Saturday night after Tagovailoa’s worst outing of the season against Georgia.

Underrated X-factor

Tagovailoa’s high ankle sprain suffered against Georgia isn’t the only injury situation to monitor over the next month. Oklahoma leading receiver Marquise Brown left the Big 12 title game with a foot or ankle injury and was spotted during the championship celebration on crutches, with a protective boot on his left foot. Sooners coach Lincoln Riley did not have an update on his status afterward. Brown finished seventh in the nation with 101 receiving yards per game, and he has 18 more receptions than the next-closest Sooner wideout, CeeDee Lamb. Oklahoma has several weapons, but not an unlimited supply.

Early prediction

The status of Tagovailoa (who has also been fighting a knee injury for most of November) is essential to this prediction. Assuming he plays at somewhat full strength, the Crimson Tide should be able to outscore the Sooners, but Alabama’s defense gets its toughest matchup of the season and will need to be better than its showing against Jake Fromm and Georgia if it wants to hold Oklahoma under 40 points.