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Alabama set for Oklahoma with title-game berth at stake

The Associated Press
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Alabama coach Nick Saban walks the field at practice for the Orange Bowl in Miami Shores, Fla., Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Nick Saban knows Alabama cannot win every game.

The Crimson Tide merely come close.

This is the fifth year of the College Football Playoff and the fifth Alabama appearance in the four-team tournament to decide the national champion. The latest quest toward another title, which would be the school’s third in the last four years, resumes Saturday when the top-ranked Crimson Tide (13-0) take on fourth-ranked Oklahoma (12-1) in the semifinals at the Orange Bowl.

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy winner. “They win a lot. We win a lot. … I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘beat Alabama’ just because they don’t like Alabama or whatever. But I’m not really too much into that.”

The game is a matchup between the two highest-scoring offenses in the country, with Oklahoma slightly outpacing Alabama in that category. It’s also a matchup of arguably the two best players in the country; Murray and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa were first and second, respectively, in the Heisman voting.

At stake is a berth in the CFP title game Jan. 7 against Clemson or Notre Dame. Alabama has four players who will be appearing in their seventh CFP game — which is absurd, especially considering there have been only 12 games total in the event since it was put into place starting with the 2014 season.

“We know we can’t be perfect,” Saban said. “But we’re certainly trying to work every day to close the gap on how good can we be, and are we reaching our full potential in how we improve and work every day.”

The edge for the Crimson Tide, on paper anyway, is on defense. Alabama comes into this game ranked fourth nationally in points allowed per game, and Oklahoma is 96th.

“We’ve prepared well,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, the 35-year-old offensive mastermind who will be coaching in his 15th bowl game. “Confident in the way our team has approached this entire month. We’ve had a great week here so far. Can’t wait for Saturday night.”

Alabama and Clemson (which plays Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday) enter the CFP with a chance to go 15-0 should either claim the national championship. And that would be rare. The NCAA defines the “modern era” as starting in 1937, and no team has won more than 14 games in a season during that span. The last team to go 15-0 at the top level of college football was Penn, back in 1897.

For two storied programs, Alabama and Oklahoma haven’t faced off often. The Sooners lead the all-time series 3-1-1, and three of those matchups have been in bowl games — starting with the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1963, a 17-0 Alabama victory. Their most recent matchup was Jan. 2, 2014 in the Sugar Bowl, when the Sooners prevailed 45-31. Alabama is 66-5 since.

The NCAA record books might not agree, but Saturday will mark the 300th game for Saban as a collegiate head coach. His teams went 236-62-1 in the first 299 games, though five of those wins from the 2007 season — his first with the Crimson Tide — were later vacated by the NCAA.

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