Dean’s Blog: What Must OU Do To Upset Mighty 'Bama?

Friday, December 28th 2018, 5:35 pm

ALABAMA IS THE FAVORITE: Alabama is a rare and robust 14-point favorite over Oklahoma. The Sooners will need to play extremely well and benefit from good bounces and breaks to pull off what would be the program’s greatest upset victory in school history. 

  • First, OU must win the turnover game - easier said than done. The Sooners were lousy in forcing turnovers (OU 82nd ranked nationally & Alabama 21st) while Bama’s aggressive and ultra-sound tackling helped create tons of fumbles. Combining that with their consistency in pressuring QBs and an athletic backend picking off passes, (UA 14 INTs, OU 6) Alabama statistically has the edge in the turnover game. But stats-be-damned, OU must simply create ways to create more turnovers than it commits.
  • Second, both teams are ranked Top 10 in punt returns and tied 24th in kickoff return average. However, OU has a decided edge with the kickers. Maximizing that advantage and creating opportunities is possible under new Special Teams expert Shane Beamer.

But in some big games in the past, Oklahoma has been whipped in this area, costing them winnable games.

Ironically, it was then-Georgia Special Teams coach Beamer who oversaw three critical and successful plays that essentially kept OU out of playing Alabama in last season’s National Championship Game. And that doesn’t include the long kickoff return by Georgia to begin the third quarter setting them up for a touchdown. The first key play happened after OU had gone up 31-14 near the end of the first half. Austin Seibert’s poorly executed squib kick backfired in the Rose Bowl semifinal.

It was later learned that Beamer ‘Dawgs had practiced for and anticipated the squib.

The second key play came on a short completion after the recovery led to a momentum-changing 55-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship. The third and biggest play came when Georgia blocked Seibert’s short field goal attempt in 2OT. Game over as Georgia quickly scored the deciding touchdown.

Now, Beamer needs to do it again, this time as a Sooner coach and against the program that is riding higher than any in the history in college football.

PUNTERS AND KICKERS: That’s a matchup where OU has a clear advantage and needs to capitalize, a way to swing a few points in favor of the Sooners.

  • 'Bama’s redshirt freshman kicker Joseph Bulovas has missed as many extra points this season (5) as Seibert’s missed in his four-year career. Seibert has converted on 79 percent of his career field goal attempts – 84 percent the past two seasons (15-of-17). His longest make is 42 yards this season, 51 for his career.  Seibert is a weapon and has a decided advantage in kickoffs. His touchback percentage is 84 percent; 104 kickoffs and 87 touchbacks. 'Bama’s Bulovas is ranked 77th nationally with his touchback percentage at only 39 percent.
  • Alabama punters Skyler DeLong and Mike Bernier have been consistently sub-par to not-very-good, especially for the best program in the country. DeLong lost his punting job after he job averaging just 34 yards through the first four games. Bernier has averaged 37 yards since.
  • Beamer’s special-teamers have made a noticeable upgrade. I’m not one that believes the Sooners should have been more aggressive and taken more risks in the regular season. 12-1 is 12-1. And I agree with the tried and true philosophy of Barry Switzer -- who learned from his mentor Frank Broyles at Arkansas – that if you have the best team you don’t need to risk a backfire with a risky fake punt, extra point, onside kick, etc. Neither Coach nor I agreed with the overly conservative Broyles decisions he made when the Hogs played it so conservatively that the Razorback coach would occasionally punt on third down.
  • I do expect Lincoln Riley, Beamer and the Sooners to take a couple of unexpected risks. Riley’s the most creative play-design/play-caller in the business. You’d think he, Beamer and the staff will have come up with some options that Oklahoma would stand a good chance of pulling off. Won’t be easy against another superbly-coached Crimson Tide team. The best example of how well-prepared UA seems to always be came when they produced the biggest play of the SEC Championship Game. A reliable SEC source told me that from one of Saban’s double-digit number of analysts, a key was picked up when Georgia lined up for a big fourth-quarter fake punt. Coaches were alerted to expect the costly fourth quarter fake punt that would be snuffed out. The ‘punt safe’ was called for and executed the way most Saban teams execute Georgia and top-tier coach Kirby Smart looked dumb. The momentum immediately switched. A stop on downs. Touchdown. Game, set, match.

ANALYSTS: Back to the fact that Saban has hired a large number of analysts -- I’m, told he has “up to twenty guys who are qualified and willing to just be part of the program for $40K a year” – and that they are a major bonus to his collective group of coaches who spend darn near 24-7-365 working Alabama football. The NY Times reported that “Saban hears complaints about his large ancillary staff – those analysts…”

Some say it’s the rich getting richer. I say everyone else is behind Saban once again.

There is no limit on the number of $40K analysts a coach can bring on. The only ‘limiting’ thing about it to me is that Saban’s competitors aren’t taking advantage of an opportunity to gain an edge on the field. One source told me that “it’s almost like Nick could assign one analyst for every player!” That’s going overboard. But I know if I had the chance as a head coach to bring on bright, hungry, incentivized analysts, I’d do it in a heartbeat. And Saban dangles out the real possibility that when one of his assistant coaches leave, one of his analysts slips right on into that spot.

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley was hired and worked for Saban one year as an analyst, spent this first season as the offensive coordinator, and is now will be moving on to become a head coach. And, oh by the way, Saban has six new assistants in 2018. Two new coordinators, and offensive line coach Brent Key is the only assistant in the same role as 2017. Only done pretty well for a guy who has had 39 assistant coaches at 'Bama beginning in 2007.

Riley continues to carry himself in an approachable, professional way that continues to impress. National media, coaching colleagues, recruits and players all point to his wisdom and ability to communicate. Bob Stoops told me recently that “Lincoln is incredible with the players." They love him. And they know he cares for them. They believe him. And Linc makes it simple terms for the players. Breaks it down to the simplest terms. That helps them play with freedom and without being bogged down and overloaded with information.

GAME FROM OU's STANDPOINT: As for the game from OU’s standpoint. I can’t get over the fact that an Oklahoma team with this much offense and kicking game is going into the ultimate (semifinal) game, against an equal blueblood program, and having to rely on a defense with so many holes. Great kids, good effort, and a few really good players. Just not enough.

Going in, OU’s defense is the worst unit statistically in the history of the College Football Playoffs. So, to have a legitimate shot at the upset, they must play to a level we’ve not seen and must create turnovers and stops that have not been seen in abundance. Without creating turnovers, it’s hard to see OU’s offense being able to keep pace with Alabama. Some in the 'Bama camp expect the Tide to score 60-70 points.

You’d like to believe OU will do all within their power to get 'Bama’s QB’s off-schedule. What do you have to lose by getting burned if they beat you on a blitz. Odds say 'Bama would get points anyway. The risk-reward factor seems to favor aggression.

And I expect NG 92 Quinnen Williams - “best player we’ve ever seen at that position,” per Riley – and his gang of rough and tumble honchos alongside to get Murray off-schedule more than he’s ever been. Whichever QB handles the off-schedule plays best, stands a good chance of winning.

I expect Jalen Hurts to be a factor in this game. And believe he will take a hard look at transferring to Oklahoma.

Offensively, Oklahoma will have success. Based on the Rose Bowl last year I’d expect it more in the first half than the second. Lincoln Riley will have come up with 7-10 special plays that are designed as explosive plays. His cranium and late-night pencil work will give the Heisman winner the chance to find open receivers. And that’s a first-class bunch. But 'Bama will limit the big-play opportunities. So, when there, the Sooners must capitalize. Bob Stoops told me the high percentage of special plays Riley draws up that come to fruition is crazy good. Murray must avoid trying to do too much. 'Bama will make it especially hard on him. And knowing the NFL will take a hard look at how well he does against an Alabama defense could be a factor in how he plays. But with his ability, his O-Line, receivers and backs, I’d expect Murray to show a lot of the poise he’s become famous for tomorrow night. He’s the least of my concerns.

A HUGE KEY: If Hollywood Brown plays AT THE LEVEL WE’VE SEEN HIM PLAY WHEN HE’S AN UNDENIABLE DIFFERENCE-MAKER, OU will put up a good number of points on the board. Personally, I’ll be surprised if that’s what we see Saturday. I expect him to start and to play more of a decoy role than a full spring go-route TD-catching game-changer. I spoke with him yesterday. I asked if he’s run any full-speed. He said no. He said, “I won’t be a hundred percent, but if I can contribute, I’ll be out there.” While I respectfully see reports that take other comments from him, like ‘I’ll be 100 percent’ to mean he’ll be the same guy we saw take over games, that’s not what he told me. It doesn’t fit the slow progress he’s made since the Big 12 title game. I am pulling for Hollywood because he and the team deserve to be at full strength for this one. And I’ll gleefully say I had it wrong if he catches 8 balls for 135 yards, with 3 TD’s in an OU win. But I believe Cee Dee Lamb and a bevy of receivers are capable of having explosive plays of their own. But ask 'Bama. Or Lincoln. An 85-percent Hollywood means 'Bama will alter its defense and make it much more difficult to pick up first down and points.

A mutual friend told me Saban told him that the biggest thing to Alabama is to “limit empty possessions.” The thinking being that OU has shown the ability to score in bunches – especially early – and it’d not be good to get in a back and score score-fest. Or worse, to see OU jump ahead two scores. That’s one reason I believe the first quarter is more important than ever. Especially for the Sooners.

CAN THE SOONERS WIN? Definitely. But I don’t think the oddsmakers are wrong. And Alabama would win a majority of games if they played a 10-game series – the way Eddie Sutton would often explain his best way to compare different teams.

Time for some Sooner Magic. Then a little more Sooner Magic. From the greatest challenges come the greatest victories. We’ll see in 24 hours when the Crimson Battle commences.



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