One play might be all which separated Alabama from a shot at a third straight BCS championship.
The trick is to make sure that one play doesn't beat the Crimson Tide twice.
When Alabama meets Oklahoma on Jan. 2 in the Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it will be coming off a brutal 34-28 loss at Auburn on Nov. 30 in which it missed four field goals. The last miss, a 57-yarder on the game's final play by freshman Adam Griffith, was returned 100 yards by Chris Davis for the touchdown which toppled the Tide from its No. 1 ranking.
"We are thrilled to have the opportunity to play such a tremendous program like Oklahoma," quarterback AJ McCarron said. "The Sugar Bowl gives us a chance to play our final game together on one of the grandest stages college football has to offer."
That challenge tripped Alabama up in a similar spot five years ago. After going 12-0 in coach Nick Saban's second year, the Tide lost the Southeastern Conference title game to Tim Tebow's Florida. Then they weren't ready to play in the Sugar Bowl against unbeaten Utah, which roared out to a 21-0 lead on its way to a 31-17 win which wasn't quite as close as the score suggested.
Do that again and Alabama will plunge into the offseason with a taste in its mouth worse than a plate of cigarette butts.
"It will be great to play my final game at Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, so close to my friends and family," Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "That being said, we are going there to win a football game and that has to be our mindset. We are looking forward to the challenge."
So are the Sooners, who, unlike Alabama, come into this one with momentum. They scored two touchdowns in the last 19 seconds of their "Bedlam" rivalry at Oklahoma State Dec. 7 for a 33-24 win which knocked their arch-rival Cowboys out of the Big 12 Conference title.
Considering that Oklahoma has endured serious personnel changes -- it lost freshman quarterback Trevor Knight and defensive leader Corey Nelson to season-ending injuries -- a 10-2 record is a pretty good feat.
Senior quarterback Blake Bell, known more as a goal-line runner until this season, etched himself into Sooner lore with the game-winning drive at Oklahoma State. The defense wasn't a dominant unit after Nelson's injury, but was able to make key plays, with the exception of losses to Texas and Baylor.
Coach Bob Stoops can go into this bowl game with relatively little pressure, unlike many years in which much was expected and little was delivered. After all, it appears this team overachieved on some levels to get here, even though many felt Oregon should have copped this spot.
"To have programs like Oklahoma and Alabama squaring off in January, that's a matchup good for college football," Stoops summed up.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--WR Jalen Saunders blossomed into Oklahoma's top playmaker this season, displaying all his skills in a 33-24 win Dec. 7 at Oklahoma State. Saunders returned a punt 64 yards for a first quarter TD, his second punt return score of the year, and caught a 7-yard scoring strike with 19 seconds left to put the Sooners ahead for good. Saunders finished the season with a team-high 56 catches and is also a threat on end-arounds.
--PK Michael Hunnicutt could tip a close game in Oklahoma's favor if needed for a late kick. Hunnicutt was 23-of-26 on field goals this year, missing fewer attempts than Alabama missed in its 34-28 defeat at Auburn on Nov. 30. Hunnicutt has converted a school-record 61 field goals in three seasons and has scored 341 points, third in school history.
--C Gabe Ikard is the unquestioned leader of the Sooners' offensive line. Ikard was a first team All-Big 12 pick, not allowing a sack all year and leading the team in knockdown blocks. With Ikard making all the protection calls at the scrimmage line, Oklahoma finished second in the conference and 18th nationally at 235.8 yards per game.
--QB AJ McCarron was named winner of the 2013 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award on Dec. 9, becoming only the second Alabama QB to win it (Jay Barker did it in 1994). McCarron completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 2,676 yards with 26 TDs and only five interceptions in just 305 attempts. Still derided by some as a "system" quarterback, McCarron is a sparkling 36-3 in his career as a starter.
--LB C.J. Mosley picked up the 2013 Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker, on Dec. 8. Mosley led the Tide with 102 tackles, including nine for loss, and also notched eight QB hurries. Over the last two seasons, Mosley has 86 more tackles than any other teammate, demonstrating an ability to play side-to-side defense and never quitting on a play.
--WR Kevin Norwood joined McCarron and Mosley as permanent captains of this year's team in a vote of the players that was announced at the team banquet Dec. 8. Norwood caught 36 passes, tying Amari Cooper and Christion Jones for the team lead, for 538 yards and a team-high seven TD catches. Norwood enters the Sugar Bowl with TD receptions in four straight games.
BOWL HISTORY: Oklahoma is 27-18-1 in 46 prior bowl appearances, winning three of its last four bowls under coach Bob Stoops, and has appeared in a bowl game for 15 straight seasons. Alabama will be making its 60th bowl appearance, the most in NCAA history, and is 34-22-3 in bowl games, including a 1-0-1 mark against the Sooners.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not playing the bottom half. If the SEC is Alabama, there's nothing to talk about, right?" -- Stoops to al.com when asked about comments he made during the summer that the "bottom six" of the SEC haven't contributed to the league's reputation.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Two good running games here. Oklahoma gains 235.8 yards per game and averages 5.3 yards per carry, led by Brennan Clay's 913 yards and 5.8 yards per rush, while Alabama got 1,163 yards and 13 TDs from sophomore T.J. Yeldon as it rolled up 212 yards per game and 6.0 yards per attempt. As one might expect, both teams are solid up front, with C Gabe Ikard leading the Sooners and LT Cyrus Kouandjio the marquee man for the Tide.
Scouting the passing game: Advantage Alabama. QB AJ McCarron completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 2,676 yards and 26 TDs with just five interceptions, which was actually a slightly worse ratio than his 30-3 mark as a junior. Oklahoma's Blake Bell made improvements as a passer in 2013, hitting on 60.1 percent of his attempts for 1,648 yards and a 12-5 TD-interception ratio, but the Sooners would prefer not to play from behind and make Bell a thrower.
Scouting the run defense: Another advantage to the Tide. Even though Auburn gashed them for nearly 300 yards on Nov. 30, they still allow just 108.3 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry, as opposed to Oklahoma's 138.3 ypg and 4.1 ypc. With both teams basing their offense around the run, the team which can force more 3rd-and-longs will derive an advantage, although the Sooners can least afford to work from behind the chains.
Scouting the pass defense: Small edge for Alabama here. Although the Tide don't have a pure shutdown corner for the first time since perhaps coach Nick Saban's first year (2007), they've allowed just a 53.1 completion rate with 10 interceptions and nine TDs. Facing more pass-first offenses in the Big 12, Oklahoma has permitted nearly 200 yards per game and 15 TDs, but has picked 14 passes and held opponents to 54.4 percent completions.
Scouting the special teams: The Sooners boast a terrific returner in WR Jalen Saunders, who lugged two punts back for TDs, and have a clear advantage at PK in Michael Hunnicutt and his school-record 61 field goals in three years. But Oklahoma covers punts and kickoffs badly (16.3 on punt returns, 23.7 on kickoff returns) and Alabama has a return weapon of its own in WR Christion Jones, who has two punt return scores this year. The Tide also have one of the nation's top punters in Cody Mandell (47.5 average), who's allowed only 52 return yards all year.
Intangibles: Many are wondering why the Sooners were picked for this game instead of Pac-10 power Oregon, and after hearing almost a month of that talk, it will be shocking if they aren't ready to roll. There's also the question of how committed Alabama will be to this game after seeing a shot at a third straight national title disappear on a once-in-a-lifetime play at Auburn. The Tide have won their last four bowl games, though, all by convincing margins.
--CB Aaron Colvin joined Oklahoma teammate Gabe Ikard on the All-Big 12 first team. Colvin missed two games with injuries, but still made 49 tackles and helped the Sooners finish first in the Big 12 in pass defense (198.0 ypg) and total defense (336.3 ypg).
--DT Charles Tapper was a second team All-Big 12 pick after recording 47 tackles, nine for loss, and 5 1/2 sacks in just his fourth year of organized football. A youth basketball phenom, Tapper didn't start playing until his junior year of high school.
--LB Dominique Alexander was tabbed Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year on Dec. 9. Alexander notched 75 tackles, including 19 in his first career start against Texas in October, and is the only freshman in the league ranked in the top 50 in tackles.
--RG Anthony Steen was one of four Alabama players to make first team All-SEC, an award announced on Dec. 9. Steen has been a mainstay up front for the last three years, helping the offense average more than 200 yards per game running and passing.
--PK Cade Foster may have missed three field goals at Auburn Nov. 30, but his teammates had his back. LB C.J. Mosley and others took to Twitter to defend Foster from fans who issued threats to him and derided him for his performance.
--SS Landon Collins earned second team All-SEC honors despite not starting every game. Collins finished second on the team with 61 tackles, rotating between strong safety and free safety, and led the defense with seven passes defended.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football