Alabama Crimson Tide: sugar bowl 2013

ESPN's Ivan Maisel, SEC blogger Chris Low and ACC blogger Heather Dinich look back at Oklahoma's stunning upset of Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and preview the Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl and the big matchup between Florida State and Auburn in the VIZIO BCS Championship.

You can listen here.

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.
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NEW ORLEANS -- The focus was there. So was the determination and the motivation.

But as the final seconds of the Allstate Sugar Bowl dripped off the clock inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alabama once again had to watch someone else celebrate a wild finish. For the first time since 2008, No. 3 Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC) lost back-to-back games after falling 45-31 in stunning fashion to 11th-ranked Oklahoma (11-2, 7-2 Big 12).

The team overwhelmingly pegged to win it all from the beginning of the season to just before Chris Davis' miracle return on the Plains on Nov. 30, was once again dragged down to earth with a head-scratching loss.

"We were more focused than we needed to be. We were ready to play, we just came out slow," safety Landon Collins said. "We came out very slow, very sluggish -- not to the Alabama standard."

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron, playing his final game for the Crimson Tide, was sacked seven times as Alabama lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2008.
While the talk all week leading up to the game was about Alabama being prepared and motivated to play the Sooners, the Tide were out-muscled at their own game. This team looked fired up from the jump, but so did Oklahoma. The Sooners didn't have near the talent that Alabama did, but it was the tougher team on the field.

So it begs a couple of questions: Was Alabama as great as we thought it was? And where does it go from here?

For all the talk about Alabama being favored against national championship opponents Auburn and Florida State, the Crimson Tide looked nothing like the best team in the country Thursday night. A fluke play ended their BCS title hopes, but this Sugar Bowl debacle ended any sort of "best team" talk.

Alabama was repeatedly pushed around, run by and slammed to the ground against an Oklahoma team that struggled to find its identity until late in the season.

The team so used to mistake-free football saw all of the demons that plagued it in some form or fashion this season attack all at once. The secondary couldn't keep up, the offensive line broke down, T.J. Yeldon fumbled and AJ McCarron had two uncharacteristic interceptions.

Oklahoma's makeshift offensive line stuffed the biggest line it had seen all season. Alabama struggled to put consistent pressure on quarterback Trevor Knight, who picked the Tide apart for 348 yards and four touchdowns, after being the on-again, off-again guy at the position all year.

In Saban's first six seasons at Alabama, no quarterback threw four touchdowns against Alabama in game. Now, two have in this season (Johnny Manziel’s five being the other one).

"We had it in our minds that we could beat these guys, that we could move them off the ball," Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said.

"In our opinion, they're the best team in the country, but we out-executed them."

When Alabama swung back with a pair of Derrick Henry TDs -- one a 43-yard run and the other a 61-yard reception -- to pull within a score in the second half, the Sooners fought back, exploiting Alabama's defense, especially its secondary. Collins admitted that the uptempo offense tired guys out, helping Knight & Co. find space.

"Once they got tired with that uptempo -- we knew they were big boys up front -- and we started to get them sweating and a little bit winded, we could start pounding them a bit," OU running back Brennan Clay said. "We started hitting those creases up the middle and finally they broke."

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyNick Saban admitted that maybe Bama wasn't as focused as it needed to be late in the season and it paid for that in the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.
Then, there was the Alabama offensive line, which looked more makeshift than Oklahoma’s, yet was only down one starter -- right guard Anthony Steen. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio struggled all night to stop Eric Striker, who finished with three sacks. As the game went on, McCarron could barely stand upright, as he was sacked seven times.

"We were late off the ball, technique was all whacky a couple times," Kouandjio said. "If you're going against a normal guy, you'll get away with that type of stuff, but when you're going up against a top guy, it's not going to look good.

"It was all just being lazy on technique. They'll take advantage of that because they're good players."

To Alabama coach Nick Saban, you could sense that a performance like this didn't exactly surprise him after the way players took to preparation leading up to the Auburn game.

"I thought our team late in the season, from the LSU game on, maybe didn't have the focus we needed to have," Saban said. "We didn't pay attention to detail, didn't do little things right, didn't practice well. I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game.

"I just don't think that our players realized sometimes that they won so much that they realize sometimes what it really takes to win every game and that you can never take anything for granted, and that everyone that plays us has something to prove. And they have to change the way they think, and that's difficult to do. And they've gotta stick with the process with what they have to do to do it, and it's tough."

A loss like this can do two things to a program: It can motivate, or it can drain. Right now, players are saying it will serve as motivation, but losing leaders, including seniors McCarron and C.J. Mosley, will be major blows. Finding guys who can step up and carry this team will be a top priority for Saban moving forward.

"These losses are not the Alabama standard," Collins said. "We're looking to come into next year and stepping it up. These losses, they weigh on us and we have a point to prove now. We know people are coming at us because they always have a point to prove against Alabama, and now we have a point to prove against everybody else in the nation."

Video: Tough night for Tide

January, 3, 2014
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Edward Aschoff talks with Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio about Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

NEW ORLEANS -- Oklahoma exploded in the first half, then held on for a 45-31 victory over Alabama at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday in one of the biggest upsets in BCS history.

Here’s how it happened:

It was over when: Trailing by a touchdown with less than a minute to play, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron dropped back to pass. But before he could unload the pass, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker came swooping around his blindside to knock the ball loose. Sooners defensive end Geneo Grissom scooped up the fumble and rumbled 8 yards into the end zone to clinch the stunning victory.

Game ball goes to: Oklahoma freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who was absolutely sensational in just his fifth career start. Against one of the top-ranked defenses in college football, Knight completed 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. All of those numbers were easily career highs. Knight threw one interception, but even that pass was on the money, as it bounced off the hands of receiver Jalen Saunders. Knight was special, outplaying a quarterback on the other side who finished second in the Heisman voting.

Stat of the game: Oklahoma’s 31 first-half points were the most the Sooners had scored in a first half all season, and the most Alabama had allowed in a first half this year, as well. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Alabama had given up 31 points over an entire game just seven times under coach Nick Saban before this Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma came into the night averaging 31 points a game.

Unsung hero: Grissom had a monster night to spearhead the Sooners defensively. He finished with two sacks, a third-down pass breakup and two fumble recoveries. The first fumble recovery came at the Oklahoma 8-yard line, thwarting a promising Alabama scoring drive in the second quarter. The second ended the game. It was easily the best game of Grissom’s career. He spent much of last season as a reserve tight end.

What Alabama learned: The Crimson Tide just aren’t quite as dominant as they’ve been in the recent past. Oklahoma might have played out of its mind, but this was also a team that lost to Texas by 16 points and to Baylor by 29. Even with McCarron gone, Alabama will be a national title contender again next season. But the Crimson Tide must shore up some weaknesses, specifically a secondary that got completely torched by a freshman quarterback.

What Oklahoma learned: The Sooners can play with anyone in the country. Alabama has been the preeminent program in college football the past five years, which includes three national titles. But this was no fluke. The Sooners outplayed the Crimson Tide in just about every facet of the game. It has been 13 years now since Oklahoma won a national championship. But with Knight back at quarterback and a couple rising stars on defense, the Sooners could be geared up for a special season in 2014.
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.

Join us for Sugar Bowl Live (8:30 ET)

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
11:00
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Can Alabama continue the SEC’s dominance in BCS bowl games? Can Oklahoma end its struggles in BCS games and give a boost to its coach’s offseason claim about the SEC?

Two of the most storied programs in college football history meet in New Orleans and we’ll be here chatting about it throughout. At 8:30 ET, join Big 12 reporters Jake Trotter and Brandon Chatmon and SEC reporters Edward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough as we discuss the game. Post your comments and questions and we’ll include as many of them as possible.

Allstate Sugar Bowl preview

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
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NEW ORLEANS -- Thursday night’s Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) matchup between No. 3 Alabama and No. 11 Oklahoma features two of the most storied programs in college football history. Here’s a preview of one of the most intriguing games of the bowl season:

Who to watch: Alabama's AJ McCarron, who, with two national titles, is one of the winningest quarterbacks in the history of the game. Even though the Crimson Tide came up just short of advancing to another national championship game, McCarron has put together another fabulous season. He was a first-team Walter Camp All-American, won the Maxwell Award and finished second in the Heisman voting. On top of owning virtually every passing record at Alabama, McCarron also has a career record of 36-3 as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback. A win over the Sooners in his collegiate swan song would cap the finest quarterbacking career in Alabama history in fine fashion.

What to watch: How Oklahoma performs against the preeminent program from the preeminent conference in college football. Even though the SEC has reeled off seven straight national titles, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has questioned why the SEC is accepted as college football's top conference, even calling it "propaganda." Stoops also has suggested the SEC's defensive reputation has been overhyped, because of substandard quarterbacking in the past. Stoops, however, has never disrespected Alabama, and this week called the Crimson Tide the best team in the country despite their loss to Auburn. Still, the fact remains, the Big 12's reputation will be squarely on the line this game, especially after Baylor's disastrous showing against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma's reputation will be on the line, too. The Sooners can prove on the national stage they're on their way back to standing alongside the nation’s elite programs. Or they -- and the Big 12 -- will take yet another perception hit heading into the College Football Playoff era, where perception will be paramount.

Why to watch: This will pit two of the most tradition-rich programs in college football history. Alabama and Oklahoma have combined for 17 national championships, including four in the BCS era. Despite their histories, the Crimson Tide and Sooners have met only four times before: the 1963 Orange Bowl, 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl and then a home-and-home in 2002-2003, which the Sooners swept. Nick Saban and Stoops, however, have faced each other only once, in the 2003 national championship game when Saban was at LSU. The Tigers won that game 21-14.

Prediction: Alabama 41, Oklahoma 17. The Sooners have thrived as the underdog, both in the past, and here late this season. But Alabama is another animal, and Oklahoma, which has been inconsistent offensively all season, will struggle to move the ball against linebacker C.J. Mosley & Co.
Alabama reporter Alex Scarborough and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down the biggest storylines in Thursday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between Alabama and Oklahoma:

The last time the Crimson Tide just missed out on a national championship game and ended up in the Sugar, they didn't seem to be very motivated. Will they be motivated this time?

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIt's hard to imagine AJ McCarron and the Crimson Tide coming out flat against OU in the Sugar Bowl.
Alex Scarborough: With AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley guiding their respective units, I don't think motivation will be a problem. The leadership on this team is too strong for Alabama to come out flat emotionally. There are too many seniors who don't want to go out on a sour note with back-to-back losses. Revenge, even though it can't come in the form of a national championship, is at play against the Sooners. That loss on the road at Auburn has eaten away at the Tide for a month now, and I believe this team is eager to get that monkey off its back and change the narrative of its season. As Brian Vogler told the media a short while back, this game is all about respect and proving again that Alabama is one of the best teams in the country.

Jake Trotter: I don’t think motivation will be a problem for Alabama. Then again, it could be. After all, the Crimson Tide have played in the national championship game in three of the last four years. Playing in the Sugar is a step down. One thing we do know is that Oklahoma will be motivated. This is the biggest bowl the Sooners have played in since the 2008 national championship game against Florida. As a double-digit underdog against the preeminent program in college football at the moment, it’s a guarantee Oklahoma will be fired up to play well.

For OU to pull off the upset, what is the one thing that has to happen?

Scarborough: Aside from Alabama surprising me and coming out flat, I think it comes down to the defense. McCarron, T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will put up plenty of points on offense, but can Mosley and the secondary rebound after what was a testing season defensively? Alabama was excellent in terms of production this season, but our colleague Edward Aschoff was wise to focus on the importance of the Tide facing another zone-read team as both Auburn and Texas A&M had success moving the ball against them. Even Mississippi State had some success spreading the field and pushing the tempo. Alabama has to set the edge and stop the run early against Oklahoma, forcing Blake Bell, Trevor Knight or whoever plays quarterback for the Sooners into obvious passing situations. If Oklahoma finds itself in a lot of second-and-mediums and third-and-shorts, Alabama will be in trouble because while there's plenty of talent at safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins, there's a significant drop off at cornerback once you look past Deion Belue.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight and the Sooners need to get off to a good start if Oklahoma is going to pull off the upset.
Trotter: The Sooners have got to get off to a good start. Whether Knight or Bell (or both) is at quarterback, this is not an offense built to come back from behind. After falling behind early to Texas and Baylor, Oklahoma had to scrap the game plan and start throwing the ball. And the end-result was a pair of blowouts. Conversely, if Oklahoma can start fast, then hang in the game past halftime, the pressure will swing on Alabama, which is expected to win this game big. And like at Oklahoma State, the Sooners would be a successful trick play or big turnover away from taking the Tide to the wire.

Who is the player to watch in this game?

Scarborough: This is going to be a very interesting game for Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest. He's had a fairly solid junior season, but he hasn't done what many expected when the season began and there was speculation over whether he'd turn pro early. Well, he's already said he intends to return to school, and with Mosley moving on, he'll be the man leading and executing Kirby Smart’s and Nick Saban's defense in 2014. How he does against Oklahoma is an important step in that progression. He needs to show he can both lead his teammates, as well as show the sideline-to-sideline type of tackling that Mosley brought to the table. As more teams go to the zone-read offense, that part of the game becomes more and more important. And if I can add a second player to watch quickly, keep an eye on freshman tailback Derrick Henry. He's a talented big man at 6-foot-3, and the buzz is that he may be poised to pass Kenyan Drake for second on the depth chart.

Trotter: Receiver/returner Jalen Saunders is Oklahoma's X-factor. In the Sooners' upset victory over Oklahoma State, Saunders unleashed a 61-yard punt return touchdown, a 37-yard reverse rush that set up another score and a game-winning, 7-yard touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone in the final seconds. For the Sooners to have a chance, Saunders must deliver another monster performance.

NEW ORLEANS -- As the clock ticks down to Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12), it's time to take a look at why Alabama will capture its third straight BCS bowl win.

This might not be a national championship scenario for the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban and his players have made it clear that they are treating this one with the same sort of importance.

Here are 10 reasons why Alabama will beat the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. Alabama's running game: One thing you can always count on with the Crimson Tide is a stout running game. Led by sophomore running backs T.J. Yeldon (1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (694/eight), Alabama averaged 212 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry. Oklahoma's rush defense is giving up only 138 yards per game, but the push from Yeldon and Drake will just be too much.

2. Play in the trenches: It's cliche, but it's true. If you can't win up front, you can't win at this level. Alabama's offensive line has been a force all year, while the defensive line is bigger than any line the Sooners have faced this year. It doesn't help that Oklahoma is dealing with the loss of two starters on its offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron will be motivated to have a big finale.
3. That seasoned guy under center: This is AJ McCarron's swan song and you better believe he's fired up about going out on top. Yet again, he was one of the nation's most efficient passers this season, throwing for 2,676 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions. McCarron isn't the most athletic QB, but he knows how to make plays and win games. Expect him to show plenty of moxie and take some shots on the Big 12's No. 1 pass defense.

4. This team's mindset: A lot of the talk leading up to this one has been about Alabama's approach to a game that isn't the national championship. Thanks to a miracle kick return, the Tide is on Bourbon Street and not out in Cali. But players sound motivated and ready, while Saban has said all week that he has been proud of his players' preparation. Seniors have talked about younger players buying in and youngsters have talked about sending the seniors out right. This Alabama team also wants to prove that it's still one of the best teams in the country.

5. C.J. Mosley: Is there anything he can't do? Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called him an "absolute perfect football player." Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said he was the best defensive football player he has ever seen during his career. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said he "is the defense." Mosley can move from sideline to sideline, drop back in coverage, stuff the run and rush the passer. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker for a reason, and he'll show why over and over Thursday night.

6. A healthier secondary: It seems like Alabama's secondary has been nicked up all year, but the time away from the playing field has given guys the opportunity to rest up and get back up to speed. Clinton-Dix is moving around better after getting his knee scoped and fellow safety Landon Collins is healthy after spraining his ankle early in bowl prep. Corner Deion Belue appears to be feeling much better after dealing with a nagging toe injury all season. This is a unit that has been up and down this season, but Alabama still owned the SEC's best pass defense (166.3 yards per game) and playing a team that rotates at quarterback and averages just 186 passing yards a game could be a good thing for the Tide.

7. Playmakers galore on offense: There will just be too much of a mixture of McCarron, Yeldon/Drake and those talented receivers for Oklahoma's defense to handle. The Sooners have a linebacker in Eric Striker who has made his home in opposing backfields, but I don't see him having too much of an effect on McCarron's ability to throw or those running backs. Alabama will be able to churn yards out on the ground and McCarron will hit a couple of big plays down the field with Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood.

8. Stopping the run early: If Oklahoma can get its running game going early, it will open up things for the pass as the game goes on. That wouldn't be good for the Tide, but Alabama won't have to worry about that because this defense is looking to stop the run first, second and third. Before the Auburn game, Alabama was allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 1.5 yards before contact per rush. OU likes that zone-read, but this isn't Auburn's run game.

9. Oklahoma's revolving quarterback door: The fact that the Sooners won't know who their starting quarterback is until just before a game with Alabama isn't a good thing. Alabama prides itself on its consistency and thrives on opponents' errors. The revolving door at quarterback with Blake Bell and Trevor Knight could be an issue against such a detail-oriented defense. The Tide seems pretty comfortable defending either guy, after both passed for a combined 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

10. Nick Saban: Is there a better game manager out there? Sure, Gus Malzahn got the best of him on the Plains at the end of the regular season, but Saban is still the coach everyone would want for a game like this … or any game, really. He'll have no problem pumping his team up and preparing it for the Sooners. He's obsessed with details and should have every single one of his bases covered for this game. He wants this win just as badly as his players.

Oklahoma focused on stopping Mosley

December, 31, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- When asked about his very first impression of Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard was as concise as he could be, sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
AP Photo/Dave MartinButkus Award winner C.J. Mosley leads Alabama in tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries this season.
"That dude's good; very, very good," Ikard, an All-American, said.

"He's obviously the most talented linebacker in the country."

Mosley, an All-American himself and the recipient of the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, is quiet and gentle away from the field but a thunderous wrecking ball on it. He can cover the field from side to side, drop back to defend the pass, rush the passer and stuff the run.

He's the heart of Alabama's staunch defense and enemy No. 1 for Oklahoma's offense.

Ikard and his teammates agreed they'll game plan to try and thwart Mosley's effectiveness in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl. You'd think that added attention would put some pressure on Mosley, but this is nothing new for the nation's best.

"I can't really control that," Mosley said. "I just gotta do what I have to do and make plays when my name is called."

He's made plenty of plays this year for the Crimson Tide. A year removed from leading the Tide with 107 tackles while sharing time, Mosley leads Alabama this season in tackles (102), tackles for loss (nine) and quarterback hurries (eight) as a full-time starter at weakside linebacker. He's also defended five passes and forced a fumble.

"C.J. Mosley is probably the best player we've played against this year, probably one of the best I've played against in my four and a half years here," Ikard said.

"You always have to be aware of where 32 is at."

And that isn't easy to do. He's so active that one blink and you'll lose him. But spend too much time locking in on him and you'll lose focus, making it easier to blow an assignment. It puts many offensive players, especially offensive linemen, in precarious situations.

Like a playmaking receiver who can line up inside, outside or in the backfield, you have to account for Mosley in some form or fashion whenever he's on the field or he'll make you pay.

"Your eyes are just attracted to him just by the way he runs around and makes big plays," Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight said.

"We're going to account for him like anybody else, but he's definitely a force to be reckoned with. He's all over the field and he's a great leader out there."

Despite lining up in the middle of Alabama's defense, the Tide's defensive quarterback finds ways to get to the ball, no matter where it is. He's so dangerous because he's so multitalented. He pores over extra film for hours each week, while still trying to motivate and push his teammates with his relentless practice habits.

The quiet tone and smoother demeanor he shows the media is only a small part of who Mosley is. He's an animal on the field, and the Sooners understand the challenge of making him obsolete is quite an undertaking.

"He's a great player. He won the Butkus Award for a reason," Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay said. "He's fundamentally sound, he gets to the ball, his technique is great."

But for all the good Mosley does, he admits he isn't perfect. He's actually pretty goofy in the way he looks when he plays. Though he carries an impressive, stone-like 6-foot-2, 238-pound frame, his legs can get the best of him at times with his "unorthodox" running style that gives him some awkward-looking strides when he runs. His legs sometimes get caught under him, making sprinting tough.

It doesn't impede his pursuit too much, but it does receive a few giggles in the film room from his teammates.

"I've been doing that since high school," Mosley said with a laugh.

The Sooners might have 10 other players to account for when Alabama's defense takes the field, but everyone knows the Tide's defense goes the way of its commander. Mosley is the linchpin, and disengaging his playmaking ability will go a long way for the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"That kid is the defense, if you ask me," Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said.

"It's been a blessing having him on this team, and I'm definitely going to miss him next year."

Alabama ready for more of the zone-read

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
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NEW ORLEANS -- When No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) looks at its matchup with 11th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide can't help but see similarities to their last opponent.

You know, the opponent that derailed Alabama's national championship hopes with a miracle of a kick return and a run game that churned out nearly 300 yards on the Tide's vaunted defense.

Oklahoma, which is averaging 235.8 yards per game this season, isn't quite Auburn, but it does possess that pesky zone-read that gutted the Tide on the Plains. For all the inconsistency that Oklahoma has had this season on offense, Alabama isn't overlooking the Sooners' running game, which could pose quite the threat if it gets going early.

"It's very important [to stop the running run early] because once they get started, they keep on rolling," cornerback Deion Belue said. "They're a tough team as it is because their offensive line is big and strong. The thing is stop the run. If all else fails, we have to do that. If not, they can keep on rolling and then they have the option to run and pass any time they want to."

The thing with Oklahoma is that the offense can get a little complicated at times with quarterbacks Blake Bell and Trevor Knight sharing time. A starter hasn't even been announced for Thursday, but the good news is that both can run the zone-read, which has been pretty successful for the Sooners this season.

Oklahoma averages 7.2 yards per zone-read play when Knight is in and 4.5 yards per play with Bell, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Knight has gained 257 yards and is averaging 10.3 yards per play when he keeps the ball on zone-read rushes, which is the best among AQ players with at least 25 zone-read runs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So while the Sooners aren't sure who will be under center first, Alabama knows to expect plenty of running plays, regardless.

"We're just going to look at it as them trying to take our manhood, kinda, and try and down us a little bit [with their run game]," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oklahoma has run 138 zone-read plays this season and averaged 18.7 zone-read plays (130 yards per game) in each of its last three games (all wins) after averaging 9.1 plays per game (47.2 yards per game) in its first nine games.

"We're going to be all right against it," linebacker Trey DePriest said. "We've repped it. That's the same offense the last we guys we played [ran]."

In Alabama's 34-28 loss to Auburn, the Tigers gained 270 rushing yards on 38 zone-read plays (7.1 yards per carry), including seven runs of 10 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Alabama entered that game allowing 3.6 yards per rush on such plays, which second best in the SEC.

Senior running back Brennan Clay (913 yards) has been the bell cow back for Oklahoma, and while he's been very impressed with Alabama, he thinks Auburn's 296-yard outing against the Tide created a blueprint for how to hurt a rush defense that was allowing just 91 yards a game before facing Auburn.

"They're not the gods that everyone [claims] them to be," Clay said. "I feel like everyone was putting them on such a high pedestal, but anyone can get beat on any given day. It's whatever transpires in between those lines on the football field is what matters.

"If we come out being aggressive, being able to establish the run, make big plays, we'll be fine."

Establishing the run is easier said than done. Before Auburn, Alabama had allowed 100-plus rushing yards just four times and surrendered just five rushing touchdowns. With about a month to prepare, Alabama won't be startled by what it sees inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Thursday.

This isn't a defense prone to continuing its mistakes.

"They're just very technical. They don't make a whole lot of mistakes, they're really physical, they know how to make plays and stop offenses, especially high-powered offenses," Knight said. "That's been a staple of their program the last couple years."

What's also been a staple of this defense is winning up front. Getting the push up in the trenches will be important for both teams, and Oklahoma All-American center Gabe Ikard said winning there will dictate the game. Fail against their big uglies, and Ikard said Oklahoma is toast.

"They're extremely powerful and big up front -- biggest defense we've seen, most physical defense we've seen, best defensive we've seen all year," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge to control the line of scrimmage against those guys. They're D-linemen are bigger than anybody we've seen this year, and that includes Notre Dame.

"If we can't run the ball, it'll be a long day for us."

McCarron's legacy as winner will endure

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
2:00
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AJ McCarron AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackAlabama quarterback AJ McCarron looks to put a bow on his career with win No. 37.
After all the big moments, big throws and, most importantly, big wins, AJ McCarron has one final game in what has been a record-setting Alabama career.

It’s not the way he hoped to go out or the way he expected to go out.

One of college football’s most accomplished winners, McCarron had his sights set on a third straight national championship. Instead, Alabama will face Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday.

As consolation prizes go, it’s not a shabby one. But McCarron is accustomed to playing for the top prize only. In fact, this will be the first time as Alabama’s starting quarterback that his season hasn't ended in the national championship game.

It will be odd, for sure, but his legacy is untouchable, and according to those who came before him, he has very few peers in a renowned Alabama quarterback fraternity that includes the likes of Joe Namath, Ken Stabler and Bart Starr.

“I don’t think there are many quarterbacks in college football history, much less at Alabama, who have the resume AJ has,” said Jay Barker, who quarterbacked the Crimson Tide to the 1992 national championship.

“There have been other quarterbacks at Alabama who've been a part of back-to-back championships, but I don’t know if they've contributed as much as AJ has. He’s been a leader. He’s delivered in pressure situations. He’s played through injuries. I think you have to put him at the very top.”

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/David J. PhillipAJ McCarron will be remembered as a tough competitor who always came up big in big games.
McCarron owns virtually every career passing record at Alabama, at least the major ones. And in most cases, it’s not even close.

He’d already thrown more career touchdown passes than anybody at Alabama coming into this season. He heads into the Sugar Bowl with 75. Second place on that list is John Parker Wilson with 47.

McCarron also holds the school record for career passing yards (8,632), total offense (8,625 yards) and career completions (667).

In his last two seasons, he has thrown 56 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. He led the nation in passing efficiency a year ago and is eighth nationally this season.

In truth, he has put up the kind of numbers that might not be touched at Alabama for a long time. But the numbers that mean the most to McCarron are 36-3, his record as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback. The 36 wins are the most in school history and third most in SEC history.

“What he’s been able to accomplish there is amazing,” said Greg McElroy, who quarterbacked Alabama to the 2009 national championship. “It’s been fun to watch. One thing I can say is that it’s tough playing quarterback at Alabama, especially when you consider that AJ grew up in that state. The pressure can be overwhelming at times, but the level of consistency that he’s sustained has been nothing short of spectacular.”

His penchant for performing on the biggest stages has set him apart, whether it was his clutch drive in the final minutes at LSU last season, his four touchdown passes in the BCS National Championship last season or his Offensive MVP performance in the BCS National Championship two years ago.

“Everybody talks about him being a game manager, but that’s a part of that position. You have to be a good game manager if you’re going to be a good quarterback,” Barker said. “What I look at is AJ in big games and in big moments. He always seems to deliver in those moments.

“I know it’s not a fair comparison, although it’s a flattering one. But AJ reminds me of Tom Brady in the way he thrives under pressure and makes the plays that have to be made. There are a lot of quarterbacks who have good stats. But what separates the men from the boys at the quarterback position is being able to handle the biggest of moments.

“Those are the ones who are special, and AJ is in that class.”

Even though there’s not a national championship at stake in New Orleans, McCarron has made it clear to anybody who will listen that the Tide will be ready. The last time Alabama lost two consecutive games was the end of the 2008 season when the Crimson Tide fell to Florida in the SEC championship game and were then beaten handily by Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

“We slipped up one time. That’s football,” McCarron said of the bitter loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. “You've got to let it go. It’s the next game. I don’t want to come out and just play a game and not win it. … I don’t really care what I’m playing. I want to win.”

And that’s precisely the way he’ll be remembered -- as a winner.

“Coach [Gene] Stallings used to always say, ‘Don’t confuse activities with accomplishments,’” Barker said. “In other words, if you’re not winning, who cares if you’re throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns?

“Ask Johnny Manziel or any other quarterback who’s putting up big numbers if they’d rather have those stats or have some championships. They’d rather have the titles.

“Your job as a quarterback is to deliver the win, and that’s what AJ was so good at.”
The sights, sounds and stakes are eerily similar for Alabama.

It's a BCS bowl game, Bourbon Street, beignets and a chance to get another big win on the big stage.

For 99 percent of the programs out there, it's a tremendous way to end the season. But for No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC), it's nothing like what this team is used to.

[+] EnlargeMcCarron
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAlabama may not have a national title on the line, but senior quarterback AJ McCarron still wants to end his career on a high note.
After winning back-to-back BCS titles, there is no championship on the line and the attention Alabama usually receives at this time of year won't be close to what it's used to. Neither a crystal football nor a No. 1 ranking will be handed to the Tide with a win in this year's Allstate Sugar Bowl against 11th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12).

But if you turn back the clock, Thursday's game in the Big Easy is a bit of deja vu for the Tide, as Alabama will see many of the same scenes it saw at the conclusion of the 2008 season in that hapless 31-17 loss to Utah in the same game.

"Not taking anything away from anybody else or the team that beat us, but we did not play with the same effort, intensity, sense of urgency. We didn't finish plays, we had lots of mental errors and six penalties in the fourth quarter that were very, very costly," Alabama coach Nick Saban said about the loss to Utah. "So there were a lot of lessons to be learned, and we kind of let it happen."

Heading into that game, Alabama was fresh off a stinging 31-20 loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. Alabama was No. 1 and a win away from playing in Saban's first national championship as the Tide's head coach.

Similar to 2008, this Alabama team lost its championship momentum after a heartbreaking loss to Auburn at the end of the regular season that featured a last-second, 109-yard Auburn touchdown on a missed 57-yard field goal.

No one would blame the Tide for coming out slow in this year's Sugar Bowl after such a gut-wrenching end to the regular season.

When Alabama lost its mojo in 2008, it fell flat against Utah. After that Florida-fueled fourth quarter in Atlanta, Alabama's wheels fell off after Utah jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead.

The emotional blow from the loss to the Gators stole the Tide's momentum and put a dent in that tireless preparation that made Alabama so dominant in 2008.

"The complacency and winning sort of got us away from that," Saban said. "I think every guy has got to change his habits and get back on track so that we can do things, talking about finishing plays, playing with discipline, doing your job, being a good team member, not being selfish, not being jealous about somebody else, not being disgruntled. There's all kinds of lessons to be learned."

Fast-forward to now, and this team will arrive in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome looking to reclaim momentum after watching arch-rival Auburn race to the SEC championship game and eventually the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tide's opponent this year? An Oklahoma team that struggled with an inconsistent offense all year before upsetting Oklahoma State to catapult into NOLA.

From the sound of things, this Alabama squad is too focused to slip now. The end of the season hurt mightily, but this Tide team has too many leaders, too much experience and too much pride to pout over its matchup with the Sooners.

"I want to go out the right way," senior quarterback AJ McCarron said. "I want to send these seniors out the right way. I feel it's only right for our class, my class that came in, and C.J. [Mosley] came in a year after but also a senior. We put a lot of work into this program to make it what it is today. It's only right we finish out on top. We still have a chance for a 12-win season, Sugar Bowl championship, which is huge. It's a BCS bowl. Not a lot of teams in Alabama history have won 12 games."

McCarron is right. Alabama has a chance to finish the season out strong and fuel a very important spring for Saban that won't feature the likes of McCarron for the first time since 2008.

Alabama still has a lot to prove, as well. Many think this team would be favored against BCS title teams Auburn and Florida State. The Tide might not be playing either, but this a chance for these players to show everyone how good they still are.

"We might not win the national championship, but we can have everyone talking about us more than the national championship team," McCarron said. "And that's happened in the past. We still have the opportunity to do that. So we have to go out the right way."
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.

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