Alabama set for Oklahoma, with a title-game berth at stake
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Nick Saban knows Alabama cannot win every game.
The Crimson Tide merely come close.
This is the fifth year of the College Football Playoff, and the fifth Alabama appearance in the four-team tournament to decide the national champion. The latest quest toward another title, which would be the school's third in the last four years, resumes Saturday when the top-ranked Crimson Tide (13-0) take on fourth-ranked Oklahoma (12-1) in the semifinals at the Orange Bowl at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
"It's a good problem to have," said Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy winner. "They win a lot. We win a lot. ... I've heard a lot of people say 'beat Alabama' just because they don't like Alabama or whatever. But I'm not really too much into that."
The game is a matchup between the two highest-scoring offenses in the country, with Oklahoma slightly outpacing Alabama there. It's also a matchup of arguably the two best players in the country; Murray and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa were first and second, respectively, in the Heisman voting.
At stake is a berth in the CFP title game on Jan. 7 against either Clemson or Notre Dame. And Alabama has four players who will be appearing in their seventh CFP game — which is absurd, especially when considering that there have been only 12 games total in the event since it was put into place starting with the 2014 season.
"We know we can't be perfect," Saban said. "But we're certainly trying to work every day to close the gap on how good can we be, and are we reaching our full potential in how we improve and work every day."
The edge for the Crimson Tide, on paper anyway, is on defense. Alabama comes into this game ranked fourth nationally in points allowed per game, while Oklahoma is ranked 96th.
"We've prepared well," said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, the 35-year-old offensive mastermind who will be coaching in his 15th bowl game already. "Confident in the way our team has approached this entire month. We've had a great week here so far. Can't wait for Saturday night."
Here's some other things to know going into the Orange Bowl:
Alabama and Clemson (which plays Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday) both enter the CFP with a chance to go 15-0 — should either claim the national championship. And that would be truly rare air. The NCAA defines the "modern era" as starting in 1937, and no team has won more than 14 games in a season during that span. The last team to go 15-0 at the top level of college football was Penn, back in 1897.
For a couple of storied programs, Alabama and Oklahoma haven't faced off very often. The Sooners lead the all-time series 3-1-1, and three of those matchups have been in bowl games — starting with the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1963, a 17-0 Alabama victory. Their most recent matchup was on Jan. 2, 2014 in the Sugar Bowl, when the Sooners prevailed 45-31. Alabama is 66-5 since.
The NCAA record books might not necessarily agree, but Saturday will mark the 300th game for Alabama's Nick Saban as a collegiate head coach. His teams went 236-62-1 in the first 299 games, though five of those wins from the 2007 season — his first with the Crimson Tide — were later vacated by the NCAA.
The best receiver on each team is a South Florida kid who just happens to be a first-team All-American. Oklahoma's Marquise Brown — he goes by "Hollywood," the nod to his Hollywood, Florida hometown — averages 101.4 receiving yards per game. Alabama's Jerry Jeudy averages 84.8 yards per game; the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation's top receiver hails from nearby Deerfield Beach, Florida.
ORANGE BOWL HISTORY
It's the 20th appearance in the Orange Bowl for Oklahoma, extending the Sooners' record in that department. Alabama will be playing in the Orange Bowl for the ninth time. And it's the second time the game has been part of the CFP — Clemson beat Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl in 2015, a CFP semifinal. The CFP returns to the Orange Bowl in 2021, when Hard Rock Stadium will be the site of the national championship game.
The winner of the Orange Bowl will play the Cotton Bowl winner on Jan. 7 in the championship game.
Here are some of the Cotton Bowl highlights.
Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0), Saturday, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Line: Clemson by 12½.
Series Record: Clemson leads 2-1.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
A spot in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Clemson will try to get into the title game for the third time in four years — the Tigers beat Alabama for the 2016 national championship after losing to the Crimson Tide in 2015. Notre Dame, playing in its first CFP semifinal game, will try to reach 13 wins for the first time in program history. The Fighting Irish last played for the national championship in 2012. They last won it in 1988.
Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence against Notre Dame's pass defense with All-America cornerback Julian Love and safety Alohi Gilman. The Irish have allowed only 198 yards passing per game and seven touchdowns passes — only two TDs in the past six games. Lawrence, who became the starter in the fifth game, has thrown for 2,606 yards and an ACC high 24 TDs with only four interceptions.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Notre Dame: Ian Book is 8-0 as Notre Dame's starting quarterback, with at least two TDs in each of those games, since taking over that role in mid-September. Book has completed 70 percent of his passes (197 of 280) for 2,468 yards with 19 TDs and six interceptions.
Clemson: Senior Albert Huggins and sophomore Nyles Pinckney, the players taking on bigger roles with 6-foot-4, 350-pound All-America defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence out because of an NCAA suspension for a failed test for performance-enhancing drugs. Huggins and Pinckney both have 24 tackles — Huggins in 307 defensive snaps and Pinckney in 285 snaps. Lawrence has 44 tackles in 460 snaps.
FACTS & FIGURES
This will be the eighth Cotton Bowl appearance for the Irish, who haven't played in any other bowl game more often. They are 5-2 in the Cotton Bowl. ... Notre Dame senior RB Dexter Williams is only 59 yards away from a 1,000-yard rushing season. He also has 12 rushing TDs after playing only eight games. ... Clemson and Notre Dame both have 13-game winning streaks. Only Central Florida (25) and Alabama (15) have longer active streaks. ... The Tigers average 6.75 yards per carry, and allow only 2.4 yards per rush on defense. They lead the nation in both categories — something that hasn't been done the last 10 years.