Oklahoma-Alabama Preview

Alabama had a tense few weeks of waiting before finding out that

Nick Saban wasn’t leaving for Texas. Now the Crimson Tide can turn

its attention back to a post-New Year’s date with another of

college football’s blue bloods.

It’s hard to say just how focused Alabama will be after its BCS

championship hopes slipped away in agonizing fashion.

The third-ranked Crimson Tide has had a month to stew over a

shocking loss in its regular-season finale that’s left it seeking

consolation in this Sugar Bowl showdown with No. 11 Oklahoma on

Thursday night.

Saban has made promises he hasn’t kept before in his coaching

career, but he says he plans to retire in Tuscaloosa after agreeing

to a contract extension Dec. 13 that will pay him a reported $7

million a year.

That followed months of speculation that he would jump ship for

Texas, which is in the market for a high-profile coach after Mack

Brown’s resignation.

“I don’t have any more reactions to it. I think it’s kind of

over so why do we want to talk about that?” Saban said. “We look

forward. I’m looking forward. I made a commitment to our players

that are here and I’m happy to be committed to them and I want them

to make the same kind of commitment to the program and to their

future success.”

While a chance to face Oklahoma (10-2) in a BCS bowl would be

the culmination of a successful season for most programs, it’s

hardly the end the Crimson Tide envisioned.

Alabama was on the cusp of punching its SEC championship game

ticket before giving up 13 points in the final 32 seconds and

losing 34-28 at Auburn on Nov. 30 on Chris Davis’ 100-yard return

of Adam Griffith’s missed 57-yard field goal attempt.

Now, the rival Tigers will play for the national championship in

Pasadena instead of Alabama chasing its third straight BCS title

and fourth in five years.

“We’re fired up playing Oklahoma,” defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan

said. “It’s not for a national championship or anything, but we’re

going to go into it like it is.

“We’re going to try to finish this season as strong as

possible.”

Alabama is hoping to avoid a conclusion similar to the end of

its 2008 season, when No. 2 Florida beat the top-ranked Tide in the

SEC title game to keep them out of the BCS championship. Alabama

wound up in the Sugar Bowl that season, too, and fell behind Utah

21-0 11 minutes in en route to a 31-17 loss.

“(Saban told us) we shouldn’t let this loss bring us down to the

point where we just keep hang-dogging and keep our heads down going

into the game and lose (the Sugar Bowl), too,” left tackle Cyrus

Kouandjio said.

That wasn’t the Crimson Tide’s last appearance in the Superdome,

however. Alabama beat LSU in the 2012 BCS championship game in New

Orleans, with AJ McCarron throwing for 324 yards in his first of

two national titles at the helm.

This is Oklahoma’s first trip to the Sugar Bowl since 2004, when

it lost to Saban’s LSU team that earned a split of the national

title.

The game will mark the college finale for McCarron, who threw

for 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions after September in

winning the Maxwell Award and finishing as the Heisman Trophy

runner-up.

“I think AJ McCarron is the best player in the country, I really

do,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said Dec. 8. “If I had a vote, that’s

who I’d vote for. On and on, just fundamental, sound, great

players, force great schemes. … I appreciate good football, and

(the Crimson Tide) play it, and they play it the right way.”

Perhaps Stoops is so appreciative of McCarron in part because of

his own team’s uncertainty at the position. Oklahoma’s quarterback

situation has been a season-long carousel between Trevor Knight,

Blake Bell and Kendal Thompson, and Stoops said his starter for the

Sugar Bowl would be a “game-time decision.”

Not even the man responsible for snapping the ball would blow

Stoops’ cover.

“We just like to keep you guys guessing with who we’re going to

put back there,” center Gabe Ikard said.

Knight began the season as the starter but was hurt in the

second game, and Bell stepped in to start the next seven. He had

his moments, throwing for 413 yards and four touchdowns in a win

over Tulsa, engineering a victory at then-No. 22 Notre Dame and

spearheading a comeback win over then-No. 10 Texas Tech.

He also threw two interceptions apiece in losses to Texas and

Baylor, got hurt against Iowa State on Nov. 16 and then watched

Knight lead the way to a 41-31 win at Kansas State.

All three saw time in the 33-24 victory at Oklahoma State that

propelled the Sooners to the BCS, though it was Bell’s TD pass to

Jalen Saunders with 19 seconds left that provided the

difference.

“I’m sure he’s extremely confident right now and he should be,”

Ikard said. “To come in and do that on the last drive was

impressive and really made our season.”

Whether it’s Bell or Knight who gets the call in New Orleans,

Oklahoma will have its hands full. Alabama has the nation’s

fifth-ranked defense overall and second-ranked scoring defense

(11.3 points per game). It also is fifth against the pass (166.3

yards per game) and 11th against the run (108.3 ypg).

Both QBs are capable of providing a running threat, particularly

Bell, who averaged 7.1 yards on his 62 carries. The Tide struggled

against a pair of prominent dual-threat QBs this season, giving up

296 rushing yards in the loss to Nick Marshall and Auburn and

allowing Johnny Manziel to throw for 464 and run for 96 in a

September win over Texas A&M.

It was Manziel who ended the Sooners’ three-game bowl winning

streak last season, leading the Aggies to a 41-13 rout of Oklahoma

in the Cotton Bowl.

That came against a Sooners defense that fell apart in the

season’s second half, allowing more than 480 yards per game over

the final seven contests. Oklahoma’s 2013 defense finished as the

best in the pass-happy Big 12, yielding an average of 336.3 yards

to rank 14th nationally.

The Sooners will be tested by McCarron’s corps of receivers,

including four who caught at least 29 passes, led by sophomore

standout Amari Cooper. T.J. Yeldon ran for 1,163 yards and 13

touchdowns, while backups Kenyan Drake (7.5 yard per carry) and

Derrick Henry (10.4 ypc) combined for 10 more scores on the

ground.

If Oklahoma wants to have a realistic chance, it needs to

concentrate on slowing Yeldon and that rushing attack. Alabama is

42-1 with McCarron as the starter when it runs for at least 125

yards, and 4-5 when it doesn’t.

“We are going to have to attack, just like we did before. It’s

no mystery,” Sooners linebacker Eric Striker said. “Everyone knows

this is the best team, even though they did lose. Even though they

lost, I don’t see it.

“I think they are still one of the best teams. It is a great

opportunity for us to show what we can do.”

This is only the fifth meeting for these storied programs, and

first since a 20-13 Oklahoma win at Tuscaloosa in 2003. They’ve met

twice in the postseason – a 24-all tie in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl

and a 17-0 Crimson Tide victory in the 1963 Orange Bowl.