Two quarterbacks will lead two of college football’s top teams into Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday night.
On one side is No. 4 Oklahoma with Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. On the other is No. 1 Alabama with Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa.
The expectation: A high-scoring affair in the 85th edition of the Orange Bowl, which doubles as a College Football Playoff semifinal and is set to kick off at 8 p.m.
The prize: A date with either No. 2 Clemson or No. 3 Notre Dame on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, California, for a national championship.
“He’s a competitor, I’m a competitor,” Tagovailoa said. “To be able to go up against the best, that’s what you want to do.”
Let’s start with Murray.
He transferred to Oklahoma from Texas A&M after his freshman year and waited his turn behind Baker Mayfield, a Heisman winner just one year ago who went on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Like he predecessor last year, Murray was named college football’s best player this season after leading the Sooners to a 12-1 record while throwing for 4,053 and 40 touchdowns with just seven interceptions and has brought Oklahoma back to the College Football Playoff for the third time in five years.
And while his success on the gridiron this year is undoubted, the baseball diamond looks to be where his immediate future takes him.
The Oakland Athletics drafted Murray with the No. 9 overall pick back in June and gave him a $4.6 million signing bonus. Murray batted .296 with 10 home runs and 47 RBI over 51 games as an outfielder for the Sooners, who were a win away from advancing to the NCAA Super Regionals last season.
“He’s either going to be a Major League Baseball All-Star or he’s going to be a Pro Bowler,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “He just needs to decide which one. Maybe both.”
But after watching from the sidelines as the Sooners lost in the CFP semifinals last year in the wild, 54-48 double-overtime game against Georgia last year, he wasn’t ready to give up football just yet.
“I couldn’t go out with a bad taste in my mouth,” Murray said.
So he led Oklahoma and one of the most prolific offenses in recent years.
Seven games with at least 60 points. Six games with at least 600 yards of total offense.
And, most importantly to the Sooners, a chance win their first national title since 2000.
“The guy is one of the most dynamic players that I have ever seen in college football in terms of his skill set,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He can beat you with his feet. He’s got great speed. He’s very athletic. He’s a good passer. They have an outstanding scheme that really challenges you defensively and takes advantage of his skill set in every way.”
The same could be said about Saban’s own quarterback.
A little less than a year ago, Tagovailoa went from backup to national championship hero.
Saban inserted Tagovailoa, then a freshman, into the lineup in the second half to spark a comeback that ended with Alabama winning 26-23 in overtime over Georgia for the Crimson Tide’s second title in three years.
He grew up admiring Manti Te’o, Marcus Mariota, Matt Leinart and Tim Tebow. The first two because their Hawaiian background gave him hope that a kid from ʻEwa Beach, Hawaii, could make it as a star football player. The latter two because they, like Tagovailoa, were left-handed quarterbacks.
He also grew up cheering against Alabama. He rooted for the Tebow-led Florida Gators against Alabama in the 2008 SEC Championship Game and felt great relief when UF toppled the Crimson Tide en route to a national title.
He was beside himself when, four years later, Alabama throttled Notre Dame 42-14 in the national championship game to win their third title in four years.
So why the change of heart?
“They were winning,” Tagovailoa said. “Nobody could stop them.”
Tagovailoa has helped take Alabama’s offense to new heights.
His numbers: 3,353 passing yards, a school record 37 touchdown passes, just four interceptions. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter during the regular season with Alabama already holding commanding leads. He fought through injuries, first a sprained knee and then a pair of ankle injuries.
The Crimson Tide has already reset single-season program records for points (623) and touchdowns (84) with at least one more game to play.
Couple that with Alabama’s fourth-ranked scoring defense that has held opponents to an average of 14.8 points per game, and the Crimson Tide has once again been one of the top forces in college football.
“They have all the ingredients to be a really good football program,” Riley said, “and they’ve done that.”
Riley has put together a quality team of his own, but only one will move on after Saturday for the chance to win it all.
“We expect to win this one,” Riley said. “ ... This team right now has as good a chance as anybody, and we want to take advantage because we do know how hard it is to get here.”
Tagovailoa added: “We’ve got to have the same goals as the team that played here last year did, and what we want to do as a team, and we want to go to the National Championship. This is just another opportunity, and it’s an opportunity for us to achieve what we want to achieve.”