Heisman finalists Tagovailoa, Murray front-and-center in Orange Bowl matchup

  • Nick Celario

The College Football Playoff semifinals are upon us. This weekend, two teams will punch their tickets to the College Football Championship game.

The Cotton Bowl features No. 2 Clemson (13-0) against No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0), and the Orange Bowl will pit together No. 1 Alabama (13-0) and No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1).

No offense to the Cotton Bowl or to Clemson and Notre Dame, but the Orange Bowl is much more compelling.

A lot of eyes will be set on the Crimson Tide and the Sooners with a lot of interest set on seeing the quarterbacks and Heisman Trophy finalists in action — Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, the Ewa Beach native who announced his arrival to college football coming off the bench in last year’s national championship game and has since lived up to lofty expectations for most of this season, and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, this year’s Heisman winner who was also the ninth overall pick in the 2018 Major League Baseball Draft by the Oakland A’s.

OddsShark has Alabama as a 14-point favorite.

For those who are pulling for the Tide, they will be keen on whether Tagovailoa will see the field this Saturday after suffering a high ankle sprain in the SEC Championship game against Georgia on Dec. 1. He’s had minor surgery to repair the ankle.

During media availability on Wednesday, Tagovailoa was seen without a limp. He said his ankle was about 80 to 85 percent.

So, I get the feeling Tagovailoa will start on Saturday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on a short leash. I’m sure Alabama head coach Nick Saban wouldn’t hesitate to turn to backup QB Jalen Hurts if Tagovailoa struggles.

Hurts was the starting QB last season until Saban handed the reigns over to Tagovailoa in the championship game and this year was designated to the backup role. But he bailed Alabama out in the SEC Championship game after Tagovailoa went down to injury and put up one passing and one rushing touchdown to deliver the Tide another conference championship and secure the team’s place in the CFP top four.

Even without the injury, Tagovailoa wasn’t effective. He was just 10 of 25 for 164 yards, one passing touchdown and two interceptions against Georgia.

So, it will be one thing if Tagovailoa sees the field in Miami Gardens, Fla. It will be another thing if he finds his early-season form and puts on a show against the Sooners defense.

I feel it is crucial for Tagovailoa to find his stride early on if he is going to lead the Crimson Tide to yet another berth in the national championship game.

As for Murray and the Sooners, it was reported Murray was scheduled to attend media availability on Wednesday but wasn’t available because of an undisclosed illness, though the team wasn’t worried much about it.

But on top of preparing for the semifinal game, a lot of speculation surrounds the Sooners QB on whether he will pursue a pro career in baseball, football or maybe even both when his college days come to a close. (Bo and Deion, watch out.)

Assuming Murray’s illness is as minor as Oklahoma lets on and Tagovailoa is well enough to get the starting nod, then I hope both live up to the hype.

And because it’s not a question that both offenses can light up the scoreboard, then perhaps it’s the defenses that will determine the winner. And if that’s the case, Alabama has the clear advantage.

Other than against Georgia in the SEC title game, Alabama has cruised through the season.

While the Tide offense has averaged about 48 points a game, the defense averaged about 15 points allowed per game, according to ESPN.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma has been in shootouts most of the year. The Sooners offense averaged about 50 points a game, and its defense allowed about 33 points a game.

Defensively, Alabama has averaged about 300 yards allowed and Oklahoma averaged about 450 yards allowed. That is just too large a disparity.

With all that in mind, I’d say Alabama gets past Oklahoma and reaches the championship game (and at the point, it’s not surprising when they do).

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Nick Celario, sports writer, can be reached at 245-0437 or ncelario@thegardenisland.com.

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