The Alabama Crimson Tide moved closer to its third national championship in four seasons with a difficult but authoritative 45-34 win over Oklahoma on Saturday in a College Football Playoff semifinal, a result that surprised just about nobody.
Alabama, ranked No. 1 with a perfect record (now 14-0), did what Alabama does, ultimately subduing a tough opponent to earn a chance to defend the title it won last season against Georgia.
On Saturday at the Orange Bowl here in Hard Rock Stadium, that opponent was the Oklahoma Sooners (12-2), ranked No. 4, with one of the most explosive offenses in college football. But Oklahoma could not overcome its most glaring problem: a defense ranked among the worst of the 130 top-level college teams.
Alabama earned its fourth consecutive trip to the title game, setting up a Jan. 7 rematch of its two recent championship showdowns with the Clemson Tigers (14-0), who defeated Notre Dame in the other semifinal Saturday.
“I’m sure it will be a real challenge for us, and I’m sure we’ll need to play better than we did today,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said on the field after the game.
Clemson lost the title matchup with the Tide three seasons ago but prevailed a year later, winning, 35-31, with a touchdown in the final second of the game. Last year, Clemson lost in a semifinal to Alabama, which then beat Georgia, 26-23, in overtime, for the championship.
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has been recovering from an ankle sprain, showed little sign of the injury, which occurred Dec. 1 in the Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia. He completed 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns against Oklahoma after saying earlier in the week that he was “80 to 85 percent” healthy.
“Our offense really controlled the tempo of the game,” Saban said. “The only times we got stopped in the game, we stopped ourselves.”
Alabama started with four drives that led to four touchdowns and was up by 28-0 just two minutes into the second quarter. By halftime, the score was 31-10, and Tagovailoa had thrown for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Damien Harris ran for two scores.
Oklahoma continued to rally, though, outscoring the Tide by 20-3 during one stretch of the second and third quarters. Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Charleston Rambo late in the third to make the score 31-20. The two teams then traded touchdowns, making it 38-27 with 8 minutes 31 seconds left in the game.
With just over six minutes remaining, a Tagovailoa touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy gave Alabama a 45-27 lead. The Sooners brought the game back to 11 points with 4:23 left, when Murray scored on a keeper from the 8. That made it two touchdowns in the air and one on the ground for the Heisman Trophy winner. He finished with 417 yards total offense (308 passing, 109 rushing).
Oklahoma came closer to Alabama than any other team but Georgia, which lost to the Tide by 7 in the SEC championship game, 35-28. Going into Saturday’s semifinal, the Tide led the country in scoring margin, with an average of 33.1 points.
Alabama will be seeking its sixth national championship under Saban, who took over the program in 2007. That would match the number of titles won by the legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant in 25 seasons. (Saban also won the 2003 national title with Louisiana State.)
Three of Saban’s titles with the Tide came in the Bowl Championship Series system, which yielded to the current format, the four-team College Football Playoff, in the 2014 season. Alabama has reached the semifinals in all five years of the playoff.
SOURCE: New York Times, by Randal C. Archibold