Oklahoma wasn’t necessarily expected to make it back to the CFP after losing its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from last year.
The two programs meet in the Orange Bowl on Saturday with the Crimson Tide trying to advance to the championship for the fourth consecutive season while the Sooners are trying to make their first CFP final.
The reason both teams are here starts with their quarterbacks.
Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa took over for Jalen Hurts in last year’s championship game and helped the Crimson Tide pull off a championship comeback.
He helped Alabama steamroll through the regular season, winning every game by at least 22 points before struggling in the SEC Championship Game and leaving that game with an injured ankle that eventually required surgery.
Hurts replaced him and led the Crimson Tide to victory to secure the top spot in the playoff field.
Tagovailoa’s status for the Orange Bowl has been the No. 1 storyline for Alabama leading into the game. He insists he’ll be ready to go 100 percent by Saturday.
“I think I was only limited the first couple of practices; maybe the first two or three practices we had,” Tagovailoa said. “Other than that I was full-go with everything.”
When Tagovailoa was healthy, he added a dimension to the offense that the Crimson Tide had lacked in recent years — a dynamic playmaker at quarterback who could make just about any throw on the field while also being capable of making plays with his feet.
“He’s going to make something happen when nothing can happen,” Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton said. “So we’ve just got to stay locked in and dialed in for every second of the play until the whistle blows.
“Tua brings depth to them, brings something to that offense that they haven’t had in years past.”
There’s no question about the status of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who beat out Tagovailoa for the Heisman Trophy.
Murray helped the Sooners to five wins of 10 or fewer points, including three in a four-week stretch to close the regular season where Oklahoma allowed 46 or more points.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Murray is tough to prepare for, especially with his speed, which helped him rush for close to 900 yards this season.
“It’s challenging because it’s hard to get somebody to duplicate what the quarterback is capable of doing in their offense. He does a fabulous job,” Saban said. “It’s a challenge to have somebody that can do that in practice and I think the speed of the game will be a little bit different when we get to the game, but we’re doing the best we can.”
The Crimson Tide will be without three players suspended for a violation of team rules, including starting offensive lineman Deonte Brown.
Oklahoma could be without Murray’s top receiving option, Marquise Brown, who suffered an ankle injury in the Big 12 title game.