Alabama Crimson Tide: Aaron Colvin

Bob Stoops likes to say he has no interest in playing the underdog card when it comes to his No. 11 Oklahoma Sooners.

They went into Bedlam last month against an Oklahoma State team that was the heavy favorite and pulled off a stunner. Now they hope to do it again against No. 3 Alabama tonight in the AllState Sugar Bowl in New Orleans (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Here are three keys for the Sooners against the Crimson Tide:

Establish the run game: No matter what Stoops’ quarterback plan is, Oklahoma must get its rushing attack rolling early to stress the Tide defense. The Sooners put up 261.3 rushing yards per game in their 10 victories and a veteran duo in Brennan Clay and Roy Finch that is capable of breaking big runs. In losses to Texas and Baylor, OU averaged 108.5 yards on the ground. What can Clay and Finch do against the No. 9 run defense in the country?

Game-changing turnovers: Alabama has turned the ball over just 12 times this season, which ranks fifth-best in FBS. Oklahoma’s defense has been pretty average in that department, forcing just 20. Chris Davis’ game-winning touchdown return for Auburn was the first non-offensive score Bama allowed all year. If Oklahoma’s best defenders, like Aaron Colvin and Eric Striker, can snag a few turnovers, they can swing the game.

Battle of the playmakers: Everyone knows AJ McCarron can hit bombs to Amari Cooper and that running back T.J. Yeldon is a handful in the open field. They’ll be a handful. But who’s going to answer the challenge for the Sooners? Jalen Saunders did a little bit of everything as a receiver and returner in the win over OSU. Saunders, Sterling Shepard and the rest of the OU receivers need to thrive against an Alabama secondary whose corners have been inconsistent.
Nick Saban and Bob StoopsGetty ImagesAlabama's Nick Saban and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops often have shared ideas in the offseason.

NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defensive improvement wouldn’t have been possible without Alabama.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was looking to alter the defensive scheme during the offseason, with an eye on making OU’s defense more versatile, more athletic and more aggressive. A three-man front seemed to fit in line with those goals, so the obvious place to turn was to the defending national champion Crimson Tide, particularly because Bob and Mike Stoops have a good working relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban.

“You go to the best to get the information if the willingness to share with us is good,” Mike Stoops said. “That’s where you like to exchange ideas.”

OU transformed from the four-man front it used in 2012 to the three-man look. The result was a defense that finished among the top 25 nationally in opponent adjusted QBR (35.4), points per game (21.3), total yards (336.3), passing yards per game (198), passing yards per attempt (6.27), first downs (17.8) and third-down conversion rate (32.5 percent), improving over last year's squad in each of those categories.

Mike Stoops' unit was the foundation of OU’s 10-2 record, earning them an Allstate Sugar Bowl berth against the team that helped make it all happen.

“When we made this move to a 3-4, they helped us with a lot of install,” Mike Stoops said of the Alabama influence on the 2013 Sooners. “Chad Walker, who is our quality control guy who works with me in structuring our defense, spent four or five years with Nick. He’s helped me tremendously to put this thing together. They understand it better than anybody. Coach Saban has been running this and variations of all kinds of defenses.”

The Stoops brothers and Saban have sharing ideas for years, with OU coaches visiting Alabama and vice versa during the past few offseasons.

“We have always exchanged ideas,” Mike Stoops said.

But it’s not like OU will take the field running Alabama’s defense on Jan. 2. The Sooners have their own spin on things, adjusting schemes to fit their personnel and the wide-open spread attacks they typically face in the Big 12.

“Some things fit what you are doing, and maybe the same for them,” Bob Stoops said of the idea-sharing. “It’s not like you are doing everything they are doing. It’s just certain ideas fit and you can add to what you are already doing.”

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Robin Alam/Icon SMIOutside linebacker Eric Striker benefited from the change in the defensive scheme for the Sooners.
Creating a defense that puts more linebackers on the field was a driving force behind OU’s move to the 3-4. Linebackers were nonexistent in OU’s defense at the end of 2012, but that’s changed this season with Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander ranking 1-2 in tackles for the Sooners. Shannon averaged 7.08 tackles per game and Alexander averaged 6.8. They each earned a spot among the Big 12’s top-20 tacklers.

“They’ve been huge for us,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “They’ve made a lot of plays. They’re some of the most productive players on our team this year. Those guys have definitely stepped up this year.”

Mike Stoops found the versatility and athleticism he was searching for at linebacker by using a 3-3-5 system with an occasional shift to the 3-4 approach against run-heavy teams.

“Structurally, it’s totally different,” Mike Stoops said. “Just putting them in position to make plays.”

No player fits those words better than sophomore linebacker Eric Striker. An afterthought as a freshman, Striker played mainly on special teams despite displaying pass-rushing prowess in practices. This season, he stepped into the Sooners’ starting 11 and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors with 43 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.

“I didn’t know if we were going to change anything at first,” Striker said of the defensive scheme change. “We really didn’t know where we were going; we just went with it. Spring was cool and then we came up with a new one [scheme] in the fall and we ran with it. It fit us well and I fit into it well. It was a defense for the linebackers to go attack and have fun. It was a great opportunity for us.”

An opportunity with a little Crimson Tide influence.

Sugar Bowl glance: Alabama-Oklahoma

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
11:40
AM ET
There's one thing the Allstate Sugar Bowl has in spades: tradition.

Alabama and Oklahoma are members of college football's aristocracy with a history of winning that goes back decades. From Paul Bryant to Bud Wilkinson, dusty images come to mind with these two schools. And it's only fitting that they'll meet in New Orleans, which holds its own storied place in history.

But what about the game itself? It's still a few weeks away, but let's break down some of the aspects that might make Tide-Sooners an interesting event to watch on Jan. 2.

Key storylines

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIAfter leading Oklahoma to a Bedlam win, will Blake Bell get the call against Alabama?
Letdown factor: Both Alabama and Oklahoma came into this season with eyes on Pasadena, Calif., and the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, but neither wound up in a position to make the long trip to the West Coast. How will that play a factor when the two teams meet in New Orleans? Is there any kind of unfinished business both programs feel? For Alabama, at least there's the idea that coming out and winning big might show the country that despite a last-second loss to Auburn, the Tide is the better team. A convincing win won't vault it to No. 1 in the rankings again, but a No. 2 finish could be cause enough to show up in New Orleans ready to compete.

Who starts at QB?: Oklahoma will begin bowl practice soon, but who starts under center is still a significant question mark. As Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel explained, he'll go with, "Whoever it takes." Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight is nursing an injured non-throwing arm, though it's unclear the severity of the injury. Meanwhile, junior Blake Bell, who came on in relief of Knight against Oklahoma State and led the Sooners on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, seems like the hot hand. But he entered the game third on the depth chart behind Kendal Thompson so making any assumptions here seems futile.

Stoops vs. the SEC: Some folks just don't like to dredge up the past. But after what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has said about the SEC in the past year or so, it's hard to forget. Stoops has called the league with seven straight BCS champions overrated, top-heavy and overstated in terms of its defensive prowess. It's all propaganda, he claims. A veteran of the Big 12, he's been mostly alone in his criticism of the SEC, which has made him a favorite target of college football fans in the South who like to chide other conferences already. But Stoops will have his chance to answer their criticism and state the case for his own. A win over the Tide might spell vindication.

Players to watch

Oklahoma DB Aaron Colvin: He's a big, physical corner who might be able to give Amari Cooper trouble. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, he's an aggressive type that doesn't intercept the ball a lot -- he has just one this season -- but does draw his fair share of flags. He's fifth on the team in tackles (49) and tied for sixth in passes defended (4).

Alabama LB Adrian Hubbard: We saw it play out last season where Hubbard came from nowhere to close the season strong (three sacks in the final games) and flirt with the NFL as a redshirt sophomore. He ultimately stayed for his junior season, but we could see a repeat of last year as Hubbard has racked up three sacks and 11 tackles in the Tide's past four games.

Oklahoma DL Charles Tapper: The Sooners have struggled some on offense this season, but their youth on defense is cause for hope. Trapper, a big 6-foot-4, 261-pound defensive end, is one of those bright spots. As a sophomore, he leads the team with nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

Alabama QB AJ McCarron: It's ironic to consider that McCarron's final game at UA will come against a team he nearly signed with as a player coming out of high school. The night before he was set to decide, he said he was thinking he'd go with Oklahoma. Why? He liked their program and Sam Bradford. But as he said, when you're a teenager, "Your mind changes about 20 times a day." In the end, it's safe to say McCarron made the right decision as a win over Oklahoma would be the cherry on top of a career that's seen him win two national championships as a starter and earned him a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Stats to keep an eye on

2: Oklahoma has a history of being a talent-rich program on offense, but this season's been different as the Sooners placed just two such players on the first- and second-team AP All-Big 12 Team. And those two selections -- center Gabe Ikard and kicker Mike Hunnicutt -- aren't what you'd call impact players.

18: The Sooners have flipped the script after being known as a passing team under former quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. This season Oklahoma's relied heavily on the run, ranking 18th in the country with 235.8 rushing yards per game.

20: Alabama's still shaking off the reputation of a slow and plodding offense. And while it may be true the Tide doesn't huddle, it does get big plays. In fact, UA ranks 28th in the country with 68 plays of 20 or more yards. Meanwhile, Oklahoma ranks 86th with only 48 such plays.

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