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Sugar Bowl Preview and Prediction: Alabama vs. Oklahoma

AJ McCarron

AJ McCarron

Alabama arrives at the Sugar Bowl eager to prove that its one loss — on one of the most amazing plays in the history of college football — was a fluke. The Crimson Tide ranked No. 1 in the nation until that defeat at Auburn, would like to show the college football world that they truly are the best team in the land. They have no hope of earning the No. 1 ranking — in any poll —  but a win over Oklahoma will allow this senior class to go out on a high note. One of those seniors, quarterback AJ McCarron, has an opportunity to add to one of the most impressive résumés we have seen in decades — he’s 36–3 as a starter with two national titles and three bowl wins.

Oklahoma under Bob Stoops has become one of the steadiest programs in the country. Like clockwork, OU is good for at least 10 wins and a major bowl game every year. The 2013 season, though, might be one of the better achievements of Stoops’ tenure. Oklahoma began the year ranked outside of the Associated Press top 15 for the first time since 2000, the year OU won the national championship.
Despite uncertainty at the quarterback position, the Sooners went 10–2 and beat rival Oklahoma State on the road in a thrilling season-finale. Sure, there were some rough patches — most notably in lopsided losses to Texas (36–20) and Baylor (41–12) — but the Sooners managed to reach a BCS bowl for the ninth time in the Stoops era.

Alabama vs. Oklahoma

Kickoff: Thursday, Jan. 2. at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -15

Three Things to Watch

The quarterback position at Oklahoma
Stoops has yet to determine whether Trevor Knight or Blake Bell will get the starting assignment at quarterback against one of the elite defenses in the nation. Knight, a dynamic runner, started the final two games of the season but left the Oklahoma State game with an injury. Bell, regarded as the better passer, guided the Sooners on the game-winning drive in Stillwater that ultimately led to the Sugar Bowl invite. Very few quarterbacks have had success against Alabama, but the numbers suggest that going with the better runner might be the prudent decision for Stoops. Only two teams scored more than 17 points against Alabama this season, and both teams received solid production from their quarterback in the running game. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel rushed for 98 yards on 14 carries in the Aggies’ 49–42 loss to Bama in September, and Auburn’s Nick Marshall ran for 99 yards on 17 carries in the Tigers’ 34–28 victory. Obviously, having a running quarterback doesn’t guarantee success against Alabama, but it appears you at least need to the threat of the run from the quarterback position to test this defense. Even if Knight does get the start, it would be a surprise if both quarterbacks don’t play in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama’s running attack
AJ McCarron will go down as one of the most successful quarterbacks in the history of the collegiate game, but Alabama is at its best when the running game gets going. The Crimson Tide boast arguably the deepest collection of quality tailbacks in the nation, but only two — T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — have received significant carries. Yeldon leads the way with 1,163 yards (on a 6.1-yard average) and 13 touchdowns. Drake, whose workload diminished late in the season as the Tide relied more on Yeldon, has 694 yards on 92 attempts for an impressive 7.5-yard average. If either one is injured, Alabama can turn to true freshman Derrick Henry (10.1-yard average), Jalston Fowler (6.6-yard career average), Altee Tenpenny or Dee Hart. This group of tailbacks will look to attack an Oklahoma defense that struggled against the run — due in part to some key injuries on the front seven — for much of the 2013 season. The Sooners ranked fourth in the Big 12 in rushing defense (fifth on a yards-per-attempt basis) and allowed at least 200 rushing yards in four games — Notre Dame (220), Texas (255), Baylor (255) and Oklahoma State (200). Look for Alabama to be the fifth OU opponent to top the 200-yard mark.

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Oklahoma’s return game
The Sooners, more than a two-touchdown underdog, will have to win the battle of special teams to make this game competitive. Fortunately for OU, it has one of the elite punt returners in college football. Jalen Saunders, also a top-flight wide receiver, ranks sixth in the nation with a 16.8-yard average on his 18 punt returns, and he scored on returns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Alabama, which has allowed only 52 total punt return yards all season, will do its best to kick the ball away from Saunders.

Key Player: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Mosley will be the best player on a field that will be loaded with 4- and 5-star recruits at every position. He leads Alabama in tackles by a wide margin — his 88 stops are 37 more than anyone else on the team — and did some his best work on the other side of the line of scrimmage with nine tackles for a loss and eight quarterback hurries. It will be important for Mosley and the rest of the Alabama linebacking corps to slow down Oklahoma’s running game and make the Sooners beat them with the forward pass. Oklahoma ranks ninth in the Big 12 in passing offense and has only topped 250 yards in a game once — against Tulsa in September.

Final Analysis
There’s a reason Alabama is the big favorite. This is an elite Alabama team that was on the verge of playing for its third straight national title before losing late at Auburn on the final weekend of the regular season. Alabama’s secondary might not be up to its usual high standard and the kicking game can be an issue — remember the Auburn game? —  but Nick Saban’s team has few weaknesses.
Oklahoma won 10 games — hitting double digits for the 12th time in 14 seasons — but this is not a great OU team. They were blown out twice — vs. Texas (36–20) and at Baylor (41–12) — and won five games by 10 points or less. The offense is mediocre (and a bit too one-dimensional), and the defense has had difficulty stopping the run. Too many things will have to go well — at least one special teams score, force multiple turnovers, etc. — for Oklahoma to win this game. 

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Prediction: Alabama 34, Oklahoma 14