Sugar Bowl matches No. 3 Alabama, No. 11 Oklahoma

Alabama heads to the Sugar Bowl facing the same kind of

challenge it encountered the last time the Crimson Tide played in

this game.

They will need to stay motivated after their national title

hopes have vanished.

Alabama was atop the polls all season and seemed headed toward a

shot at a third straight national title before falling 34-28 to No.

2 Auburn. The third-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1) instead will face

No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 at New Orleans.

The game is sponsored by Allstate.

”Even though there is some disappointment in terms of how we

finished our season this year, we’re not disappointed at all in the

opportunity that we have to play in the Sugar Bowl and to play

against a great team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ”I’m

hopeful that our team will look at this as a challenge and an

opportunity for them to prove the kind of football team we can

be.”

Alabama faced a similar situation five years ago.

When it earned that Sugar Bowl invitation in 2008, Alabama had

just lost the SEC title to Florida with a BCS championship game

appearance at stake. Alabama fell behind 21-0 to Utah and went on

to lose 31-17. The Tide had a more pleasant Superdome postseason

memory when they capped their 2011 national title with a 21-0

victory over LSU in the BCS championship game.

”How (this) team recovers and how that team goes and takes the

challenge of this game is going to say a lot about the character

and the leadership this team has,” Saban said.

Oklahoma won’t have to worry about motivation.

The Sooners’ national title hopes were long gone when they

boosted their chances for a BCS at-large invitation Saturday with a

33-24 victory at Oklahoma State, which fell from No. 6 to No. 13

after the loss. The Sugar Bowl invited Oklahoma over No. 10 Oregon

(10-2), which also had a strong case for a BCS bid.

”Everybody just kept grinding, kept fighting, kept believing,”

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ”We’ve had a great attitude and a

tough, hard-working group of players all along.”

Stoops downplayed the notion that his team might have some type

of mental edge because it’s coming off an emotional victory over an

in-state rival while Alabama is recovering from a devastating loss

to its rival.

”It might make a difference if we were playing next week, but

the fact that there’s so much time in between, I don’t think it’s a

factor at all,” Stoops said.

Stoops now has an opportunity to change his recent luck in bowl

games against SEC opponents. Oklahoma ended the 2003 season with a

21-14 Sugar Bowl loss to LSU, capped the 2008 season with a 24-14

BCS championship game loss to Florida and fell 41-13 to Texas

A&M in last season’s Cotton Bowl. Oklahoma had won three

straight bowl games – all against non-SEC teams – before its Cotton

Bowl loss last year.

Alabama might provide the toughest challenge of all those SEC

opponents. Stoops showered praise on Alabama during a Sunday night

teleconference and called Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron the best

player in the country.

”I think it’s just incredible what Nick Saban and Alabama have

done the last three or four years,” Stoops said. ”They’ve been

No. 1 in the country for like four years. We get it, we understand

what a challenge it is, but we’re excited about it.”

These two storied programs will be facing each other for only

the fifth time ever. Oklahoma leads the series 2-1-1 and beat

Alabama 20-13 when they last met in 2003 at Tuscaloosa. Two of

their prior meetings came in bowl games. Oklahoma and Alabama tied

24-24 in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl. Alabama beat Oklahoma 17-0 in

the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1963.