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Alabama vs. Oklahoma and the 2 football cultures that collide

Finding the right word to describe Oklahoma’s offense can be tricky. The group checks all the boxes looking at points scored and yards gained.

Nobody’s had more of either this season entering Saturday’s Orange Bowl with Alabama.

A search for the proper adjective strikes to the heart of a team’s football identity. It cuts into the culture of offense from one conference to another meeting at the crossroad of a season.

Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams gave it a shot.

“I would say, smooth,” he said. “They have a smoother quarterback. They have a quarterback who can do both.”

Well, Kyler Murray is the Heisman Trophy winner who passed for 4,053 yards and ran for another 892. He combined for 51 touchdowns but the Sooners don’t want to be known as a finesse offense.

It comes with a connotation of being soft — one the Big 12 has carried in recent years when scoring exploded long after memories of Oklahoma’s wishbone days faded.

That finesse label also stands in contrast to the SEC’s reputation for a more smash-mouth style. Alabama’s offense had a touch of that Big 12 flavor with the passing numbers Tua Tagovailoa delivered, though it too wanted to keep its tradition of toughness between the tackles.

The Sooners’ home run legacy spans into the Bob Stoops era of the early 2000s straight through consecutive Heisman quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. They’re averaging 577.9 yards and 49.5 points a game in a season full of shootouts.

“Yeah, it’s efficient,” said Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses, agreeing with Williams calling Oklahoma smooth. “It’s really efficient. Whenever I was watching their offense, it’s very unique in a way because the type of plays they run, you don’t really see that a lot. You can tell their offensive coordinator or head coach came up with some plays that could really hurt a defense.”

Oklahoma defensive end Amani Bledsoe took the “smooth” tag to mean the Alabama guys thought the Sooner offense played well as a single unit.

His teammate, running back Trey Sermon just doesn’t want to hear anything about finesse — a term no Alabama player used to describe Oklahoma. He admits that bothers him when people through that word around.

“I mean, yeah, it kinda does because we’re very physical,” Sermon said. “Our offensive line is the most physical. So, it does kind of bother us because we go out there and we play our game and we execute. We match everybody’s physicality.”

The Sooner offensive line has a say in that. That group was honored with the Joe Moore Award going to the nation’s best offensive front. Finesse teams don’t typically rank 11th in rushing offense averaging 253.9 yards a game. Williams, the Alabama defensive lineman, was quick to label that Sooner offensive line as “physical.”

They just do things at a different speed.

That’s the Big 12 way.

“The Big 12 is more of a fast pace, a lot of teams, their tempo is very high,” Sermon said. “In the SEC, you don’t really see much of that.”

That could be important Saturday night in Hard Rock Stadium.

“I think that’s a big factor,” said Sermon, an import from the heart of SEC country in Marietta, Georgia. “If we can play our game, make the most of our opportunities and execute, I feel like we’ll be alright.”

Williams, Alabama’s All-American defensive tackle, said this will be much different from the SEC Championship win over Georgia.

“We knew we were going to get more physicality in the SEC compared to the Big 12,” Williams said. “The Big 12 is more, I feel like, shotgun — more smoother. I feel like they’re looking for more shots. In the SEC, it’s more like we’re going to drive the ball down the field type of offenses. Oklahoma has a great offense. They do it well.

“Whatever they’re doing over there, they’re doing it well.”

And it’s not like you can’t be both smooth and physical. Damien Harris made that argument as it relates to Alabama’s evolving offense that looks quite different from the Derrick Henry brand of 2015.

“People think just because we run RPOs and we throw the ball sometimes that we’re not still a dominant, physical team,” Harris said. “It doesn’t matter if you run the ball or throw the ball, whoever is the most physical team is going to be the team who has more success. … I think a lot of people get it mistaken that just because we don’t run the ball as much or that we do a bunch of unconventional things that we’re more of a finesse team and that’s not true.”

While Williams used the “smooth” adjective to describe Oklahoma’s offense, he didn’t want it attached to Alabama’s defense. It won’t adjust any identity to match the offense of Oklahoma.

“No, you never want to have a smooth defense,” he said, “because you’re going to be laid back. We want to have a physical defense.”

Smooth vs. physical will be decided under the Miami Gardens lights Saturday night.

Those 50-point games commonplace in the Big 12 are of no interest to Williams and the Alabama defense.

“I want a shutout,” he said. “I want to shut them out. I don’t know what’s reasonable. I just want to shut them out. In my dominant characteristic, I want to shut them out.”

Michael Casagrande is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.

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