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.
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