Watch enough games between high-flying spread offenses in college football and you learn to process matchups like the upcoming clash between the Oklahoma Sooners and Alabama Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl in a whole new way.
For about a hundred years, we’ve analyzed games from the perspective of offenses trying to penetrate defenses. We’re seeing that script flipped with increasing regularity now. A possession involving a spread offense is more like watching grass court tennis, with one side trying to beat back an onslaught of rocket serves and volleys.
It can be an excruciating rooting experience because it’s hard to give up the notion that for a defense, the other team scoring represents the ultimate failure. Yet, spread offenses are built to exploit the weaknesses that almost inevitably crop up when an entire unit’s success rests on 11 people simultaneously doing their jobs. At some point, failure becomes a matter of degree, not negation.
You understand this all too well if you’ve kept up this season with OU, a team that went 12-1 in the regular season despite allowing 32.4 points per game, which ranked 96th in the country. Armed with a bogus defense, the Sooners still managed to get by a slate overloaded with classic Big 12 spread teams.
Alabama has seen a handful of highly efficient offenses this season, but nothing quite like what the Tide will get from the Sooners on Saturday. Like all coaches who have faced OU’s dynamic offense, Alabama coach Nick Saban has an important choice to make regarding his team’s game plan.
Slowing it down
Between now and kickoff on Saturday, you’ll hear your fair share of talking heads pushing for the Tide to implement a ball-control offensive game plan, working the clock to fluster OU’s offense and reduce the Sooners’ number of possessions.
Earlier this season, the Army Black Knights executed this strategy to perfection in a near upset of the Sooners. The Black Knights essentially had six offensive possessions in regulation, four of which each chewed up at least nine minutes of game time. They had the ball in their possession for 45 of the game’s 60 minutes and ran 83 plays prior to overtime.
The keepaway tactics limited the Sooners to a total of 38 offensive plays on seven drives in regulation. OU had little problem moving the ball up and down the field, but an interception cut one drive short after two snaps. A missed block stopped the Sooners on another possession on fourth-and-goal inches away from Army’s end zone. Austin Seibert also missed a chip shot at the gun that would have secured victory in regulation.
The Black Knights didn’t have to stone OU’s offense to position themselves for a potential win. By keeping Kyler Murray and company on the sidelines, they only had to capitalize on a couple of Sooner miscues.
Although the stat sheet looked very different, you could argue the Texas Longhorns’ win over OU in October played out in similar fashion to the Army game. Two OU turnovers aided the Texas cause by giving the Longhorns the ball in plus territory. Additionally, UT had almost 20 more offensive snaps than the Sooners (75 to 58) and enjoyed an edge in time of possession of eight minutes.
Contextual factors ramped up the score to a shootout-like final of 48-45, but the Longhorns’ upset formula felt familiar.
Given the success of Texas and Army, should Saban try to follow a similar path to victory versus OU?
Lincoln Riley should pray that he does. To understand why, consider the OU-Army game.
While Sooner Nation may still have nightmares about watching OU try to stop the Black Knights’ option, the reality is that the biggest mismatch of the contest was the OU offense against the Army D. The postgame stats bear out just how much more efficiently the Sooners moved the ball during the game as OU doubled up Army in yards per play, 8.9 to 4.4.
When a team is averaging nine yards per snap, a significant number of its drives tend to end in touchdowns. Yet, while Army was draining the clock on offense, the team’s defense made a handful of timely plays to kill OU possessions. Those scoreless trips for OU effectively wiped out the biggest mismatch in a contest that saw both teams get roughly half the number of possessions of a normal college football game.
Capturing that kind of variance illustrates the upside of playing ball control when your team is significantly outgunned. If the two teams each got the standard 12 possessions in the game, what are the chances Army could have kept up with the Sooners? Seeing as it took three anomalous plays for Army to force overtime in a seven-possession game, the chances seem miniscule.
But we’re talking about a different dynamic when OU and Bama face off. As good as OU’s offense is, the Sooners will find themselves on the wrong side of the major mismatch in the Orange Bowl. The gap between Alabama’s offense and OU’s defense is just that big.
Sure, playing ball control would keep OU on the sidelines. The Tide would also run the risk of marginalizing the biggest edge either team has in this mismatch. If you’re Lincoln Riley, you’d probably welcome any scenario in which it would have an outsized impact on the outcome of the game if the Sooners were to generate a turnover or force a field goal.
Frankly, the Crimson Tide could go the ball-control route and still win. They are favored by two touchdowns for a reason.
But Bama doesn’t need to get cute to win this game. Worrying too much about countering what the Sooners want to do allows the tail to wag the dog.
Yes, a shootout will ensue on Saturday, but it’s one that Bama almost certainly should win. Approaching the game any other way would be foolish on their part. Saban may have specific ideas about what he wants football to be, but he’s not one to let stubbornness get in the way of winning.
Whether they like it or not, Alabama fans should probably expect a heavy dose of Big 12 football on Saturday.