Sugar Bowl breakdown: Alabama vs. Oklahoma
Alabama (11-1) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)
Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
When Auburn's Chris Davis Jr. did the unthinkable in the Iron Bowl -- returning Crimson Tide kicker Adam Griffith's missed field goal 109 yards for a miraculous touchdown as time expired -- he abruptly ended Alabama's two-year reign as BCS champion. A week later, on Dec. 7, the Sooners rallied past Oklahoma State in Bedlam -- in a game that included an earthquake! -- to lock up an unlikely BCS berth. So here we are, on the verge of a Sugar Bowl few saw coming and even fewer believe is evenly matched.
'Bama is the juggernaut. It's 36-3 dating back to 2011, and overwhelms opponents with a consistently dangerous offense and a suffocating defense. Oklahoma is the brand-name overachiever. The Sooners gutted out 10 wins this season despite rotating between three quarterbacks (Trevor Knight, Blake Bell and Kendal Thompson). Indeed, coach Bob Stoops has yet to name a starter for Thursday night's game.
On paper, this appears to be a colossal mismatch. Can Oklahoma pull off a stunner and beat Nick Saban's Crimson Tide?
1. Who starts for the Sooners? Alabama ranks second nationally in scoring defense and fifth in total defense. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the Sooners are looking to gain any tactical advantage they can. Stoops isn't expected to reveal his starting quarterback until minutes before kickoff. That move, in theory, should force 'Bama to prepare for both Knight and Bell.
Both players are run-first quarterbacks, but they employ vastly different styles. Knight is a speedy, athletic threat who thrives in read-option packages, while Bell is a physical, between-the-tackles runner who prefers to line up in the spread. Bell is the more proficient passer of the two, completing 60.1 percent of his attempts (compared with Knight's 52.2 percent) for a rating of 132.2 (compared with Knight's 105.6).
No matter who lines up under center, however, the Crimson Tide defense will present a massive challenge. The unit -- led by defensive end Ed Stinson and linebackers Trey DePriest and C.J Mosley -- gives up just 108.3 rushing yards per game, though it has been susceptible to running quarterbacks this season; Nick Marshall and Auburn gashed 'Bama for 296 rushing yards on Nov. 30.
2. Rapid returns: For Oklahoma to stand a chance, it needs to limit the production of quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper. But perhaps of equal significance, the Sooners must also make an impact on special teams, an area in which both programs -- with the exception of the aforementioned field-goal return -- excelled in 2013.
Sooners' wide receiver and return specialist Jalen Saunders averages 16.8 yards per punt return, the fifth-highest mark in the FBS. Over the last three games, he has returned five punts for 191 yards and two scores, including a 64-yard first-quarter touchdown against the Cowboys that effectively kept Oklahoma's BCS hopes alive.
On the other sideline, Alabama trots out Christion Jones, who broke free for two return touchdowns in the Crimson Tide's season-opening 35-10 rout of Virginia Tech. Jones averages 14.4 yards per punt return, eighth nationally. As demonstrated below, he also has the ability to send a message on the kick coverage unit.
Both teams' headliners should shape the course of this game, but don't be shocked if a special teams play becomes a major tipping point.
3. Remembering '09: The last time Alabama played in the Sugar Bowl, it met Utah on the heels of a loss to Florida in the 2008 SEC title game. The Tide entered as a prohibitive favorite, but they promptly lost 31-17 in one of the most unexpected results of the BCS era. To avoid a similar letdown this time around, 'Bama needs to stay motivated.
Perhaps the biggest factor working in Alabama's favor? Its veteran leadership. On Thursday night, the Crimson Tide will be sending off one of the most distinguished senior classes in college football history. Among those playing their final collegiate games in New Orleans will be McCarron, Mosley, wide receivers Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, guard Anthony Steen and punter Cody Mandell.
McCarron, for one, doesn't seem complacent. "We slipped up one time, but that's football," he told reporters last week. "We have to let it go. The next game, I don't want to come out and not win it. I don't care what I'm playing."
Can Oklahoma's defense stop a quality opponent? Take a cursory glance at the numbers, and it looks as if the Sooners' defense has been strikingly stout. The unit allows just 336.3 yards and 21.3 points per game, figures that rank 14th and 21st in the nation, respectively. Dig a bit deeper, however, and Oklahoma is much more flawed. Against two of the Sooners' toughest foes this year -- Texas on Oct. 12 and Baylor on Nov. 7 -- their defense surrendered a combined 904 yards, including 510 on the ground.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' unit features a number of NFL-caliber standouts, including linebacker Eric Striker and defensive backs Aaron Colvin and Gabe Lynn. But it's also undersized, something that could cause major issues against Yeldon and fellow tailback Kenyan Drake (7.5 yards per carry). If 'Bama's backfield gets going -- opening things up for McCarron on play-action passes -- this game could get out of hand quickly.
The Sooners' play-calling: Given the talent gap between the rosters, expect Bob Stoops to pull out all the stops in an effort to catch Alabama off guard. He called for a pivotal fake field goal in the third quarter of Oklahoma's win over Oklahoma State, and he could try similar tactics on Thursday night. Keep a close eye on Saunders and senior wideout Lacoltan Bester. The former is the Sooners' most dangerous playmaker, while the latter tossed a 49-yard double-reverse touchdown pass at Kansas on Oct. 19.
4: The number of times the Crimson Tide and the Sooners have played each other prior to this season's Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma holds a 2-1-1 edge in the series, with Alabama's lone victory coming in a 17-0 win in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1963. 'Bama's quarterback at the time was Joe Namath.
During the spring, Stoops publicly questioned the SEC's depth. In October, he told The Oklahoman that the conference's mystique was "propaganda." Now, he has a chance to back up his jabs. Can his underdog Sooners topple the nation's most dominant program?
Not likely. Oklahoma's ground game, which also features senior tailback Brennan Clay, should be able generate some production. But it won't be enough. McCarron, Mosley and the rest of Alabama's senior class won't go out with a third consecutive championship, but they will go out as winners.
Alabama 31, Oklahoma 10