Oklahoma Sooners: Alabama Crimson Tide
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Here's how they did it:
Our methodology was simple: We re-tallied the scores following signing day and ranked the schools based on total number of ESPNU 150 recruits (there have been 900) hauled in over the last six years. Of course, like success on the field, recruiting is cyclical -- and fans of programs both on and off this list might look back on Feb. 1, 2012 as the day their team began its rise (or fall) on the trail.
Here's the top-10:
5. Florida State
6. Notre Dame
T-10. Ohio State
Here's what it says about Oklahoma:
Top states: Texas (14), Oklahoma (seven)
Surprise state: California (three)
Oklahoma continues to reel in the relatively small amount of ESPNU 150 talent produced in the Sooner State, signing its top two 2012 recruits: WR Sterling Shepard (Oklahoma City) and RB Alex Ross (Jenks). That puts the Sooners at 7-for-13 since 2007. Bob Stoops also went into Florida (No. 2 OC Ty Darlington of Apopka) and Missouri (WR Durron Neal of St. Louis) for the first time in the past six years.
Green-Beckham has been described as a hybrid of Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones. At 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, he possesses the size and speed to be a significant deep threat and formidable red-zone target.
Any program in the nation would be happy to land Green-Beckham, but he has narrowed his list to five schools -- Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Alabama and Oklahoma –- all of which have significant holes at wide receiver.
So the question becomes, who needs Dorial Green-Beckham most?
Alabama has stocked up on wide receiver recruits in its 2012 class with five 4-star or 5-star recruits listed as ATH/WR. The Tide could use all of the help that they can get after losing their top four pass catchers from 2011. Most importantly, Alabama needs to find a top wide receiver to fill the void left by Julio Jones and Marquis Maze leaving in consecutive years.
Jones and Maze were targeted on almost half of Alabama’s passes thrown 20 yards or more in the air since the start of 2010, resulting in 15 receptions and five touchdowns. Green-Beckham’s downfield prowess would benefit AJ McCarron who improved his deep passing in the second half of last season.
Arkansas is the predicted landing spot for Green-Beckham by all seven ESPN experts polled. If he chooses to sign with the Razorbacks, Green-Beckham would fill one of the greatest wide receiver voids in the nation.
Arkansas is losing three of its top four wide receivers, including the school’s top two players in career receptions, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams. Wright and Adams combined for more receiving yards (1,769) than any other set of receivers in the SEC last season.
In fact, no SEC team had three wide receivers combine for more yards, receptions and touchdowns than Wright and Adams.
Missouri needs a second wide-receiver option behind T.J. Moe next season with TE Michael Egnew and WR Wes Kemp graduating. Moe has the second-most receiving yards in the Big 12 since the start of 2010 among returning players, but he is not known for his deep-threat ability.
Of his 146 receptions in the past two seasons, only 13 have gone for 25 or more yards. Green-Beckham’s downfield speed would lead to more big plays for the Tigers and open up underneath routes for Moe and others.
Oklahoma must replace FBS all-time leader in receptions, Ryan Broyles. Broyles was Oklahoma’s top target downfield, in the red zone, on third down and when opponents brought the blitz over the last two years.
Landry Jones struggled after Broyles’ injury in 2011, and despite landing three 4-star wide receiver recruits, a talent like Green-Beckham could fill the void left by Broyles.
Broyles had some of the strongest hands in college football, dropping just two passes in 417 pass attempts since the start of 2009.
According to scouts, Green-Beckham also has strong hands and the ability to snatch balls in traffic, which will be valuable in an Oklahoma offense that throws a lot of quick slants. Oklahoma has focused on replacing Broyles with three 4-star recruits committed for next season, but the addition of Green-Beckham will have an immediate impact on a team with national title hopes.
Texas could use Green-Beckham’s size in the red zone. The Longhorns completed just 32 percent of their passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions in the red zone during conference play last season, which was the worst completion percentage by any Big 12 team in the last five seasons.
When throwing into the end zone, Texas completed just 5-of-17 passes with two interceptions. Beckham’s 6’6” size and leaping ability would give Texas a target to drastically improve its red-zone passing offense.
Junior running back Greg Bryant rushed for 243 yards and three touchdowns on the afternoon. American Heritage head coach Doug Socha summed up running back Greg Bryant’s performance.
“He’s awesome, it starts up front with our offensive line," Socha said, "but Greg is very special, obviously.”
Exhausted from his 39-carry performance, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound bruising running back talked about the win after the game.
“It feels real good, I’m about to go celebrate with my team,” Bryant said. "Once I get in a rhythm I just keep going. All that hard work paid off in the end.”
With early scholarship offers from LSU, Florida State, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alabama and Florida, Bryant is expected to be one of the top running backs not only in the state but the country next season.
Bryant, who said distance will not be a factor in his recruitment, talked about Oklahoma, the most recent school to offer him.
“I like Oklahoma, they run the ball a lot,” he said. “They do a lot with the running backs and they have a good running back history. I like them a lot. I’d like to get out to Oklahoma and visit there soon.”
Florida was the first team to offer Bryant and he said he likes the pro-style system that Florida has implemented since Will Muschamp took over.
“Florida is starting to run the ball a little bit more,” Bryant said. "Coach Aubrey [Hill] said they will be in the pro-style, so I like that, too.”
With Charlie Weis having left Florida to take the head coaching job at Kansas, Bryant said the departure won’t change how he feels about the Gators.
“It won’t affect me,” Bryant said. “It’s just the way they run their program -- I like their program. One person can’t change it.”
Bryant said he talks to Oklahoma and LSU the most and is intrigued by the thought of playing for the Tigers.
“LSU, I mean they are in the national championship game, so I like that,” Bryant said. “They throw the ball, they have a good defense. I just like the program.”
Bryant, who said he won’t decide what school he will attend until sometime next year, said his decision will come down to where he feels the most comfortable.
“Be comfortable where I’m at, somewhere where I can play as soon as I get there," he said. "I want to have a good relationship with the coaches. I just want it to feel like family.”
Bryant, along with Adam Lane (5-7/206, Winter Haven, Fla./Winter Haven), Kelvin Taylor (5-11/205, Belle Glade, Fla./Glades Day), Ryan Green (5-11/190, St. Petersburg, Fla./St. Pete Catholic) and Georgia commit Derrick Henry (6-3/231, Yulee, Fla./Yulee), is among the top running backs in the state for 2013.
“I wasn’t much for lobbying the last time we were in that situation,” Stoops said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “And it worked out pretty good.”
That year, OU edged Texas in the BCS to break a three-way tie for the Big 12 South, propelling the Sooners to the national championship game.
Oklahoma's national title hopes got two big breaks Saturday.
Boise State and Stanford both broke down and lost on their home fields — just like the Sooners did last month.
So here Oklahoma sits at a tidy No. 5 in the latest BCS standings, with a date against No. 2 Oklahoma State coming into focus.
The biggest problem?
The two teams ahead of the Sooners have only one blemish: A loss to the nation's No. 1 team, LSU.
Would a victory over Oklahoma State on Dec. 3 in the de facto Big 12 title game slingshot the Sooners into the national championship game?
Ultimately, it's going to depend on voters, who make up two-thirds of the BCS standings. The Sooners are strong in the computers — they're in the top five in five of the six computer rankings (and sixth in the other) and below both Alabama and Oregon in just three. Oklahoma State is No. 1 in three of the computer rankings.
Oklahoma's best hope? A voter mutiny against a rematch between LSU and Oregon (LSU won 40-27 in Dallas on Sept. 3) or Alabama and LSU (LSU won in overtime in Tuscaloosa, 9-6) and an impressive closing stanza for voters to remember the Sooners before coaches cast their ballots in the USA Today poll and before Harris poll voters send their ballots in.
Oklahoma, if it wins out, would have an impressive five victories over top-25 teams. Oregon would have two. Alabama would have four.
The Sooners, though, will have difficulty outrunning that Texas Tech loss, which gets worse and worse by the week. The Red Raiders have lost five of six games, and have been outscored 159-33 in losses to Iowa State, Texas and Oklahoma State.
Call it a fluke if you want, but championship teams don't have fluke losses. It could cost Oklahoma a shot at the title.
That is, unless the Sooners win out and voters say Alabama and Oregon don't deserve another chance to knock off Les Miles' team.