Oklahoma Sooners: sugar bowl 2013

Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight played the game of his career and the Sooners defense made key plays in key moments as Oklahoma knocked off Alabama 45-31 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. Here's a closer look, after a re-watch of the game, at five key plays that helped OU pull off the upset.

Safety Gabe Lynn’s interception in the first quarter

The Sooners brought four pass rushers against Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who made a horrible decision, throwing into triple coverage despite not being pressured. The Crimson Tide had single coverage on every other receiver, making McCarron’s decision even worse. He essentially threw the ball as if he didn't see that Lynn was sitting in center field to attack any deep throw.

Lynn, reading McCarron’s eyes, made the easy interception. It was a key play for the Sooners as it came right after Knight threw an interception on OU’s first possession, and it prevented the Crimson Tide from jumping out to a two-touchdown lead.

Knight’s 45-yard touchdown to Lacoltan Bester in the first quarter

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight made several great throws in the upset of Alabama.
An exceptional play by everyone involved. Terrific protection from the offensive line, a great read and throw from Knight and superb athleticism from Bester to turn a 20-yard pass into a 45-yard touchdown.

It started with a play-action pass off a zone-read fake. OU only had two receivers running routes, with Sterling Shepard providing a safety net option after the fake. Without a perfect throw from Knight, this would not have been a touchdown. It was accurate with zip, allowing Bester to gather it in and turn upfield. Bester’s stutter step provided just enough room to dive in for the score. The most underrated aspect of the touchdown was the confidence from Heupel to call a pass on the first offensive play after Knight’s interception.

The fact coach Bob Stoops sought out Knight to congratulate him after the play speaks volumes about the importance of the touchdown. It was at that point the Sooners realized Knight had brought his “A” game and they would be able to take advantage of the Crimson Tide’s focus on OU’s ground attack.

Knight’s 43-yard beauty to Jalen Saunders in the second quarter

Alabama defensive back Deion Belue gave Saunders’ a 10-yard cushion before the snap, and still was beaten deep. This is where having NFL-caliber players on your roster pays off.

Play action helped get Saunders one-on-one against Belue, who bit on Saunders' double move. Knight delivered a perfect throw over the outside shoulder, where only Saunders could make a play on it. The senior receiver made a superb, over-the-shoulder catch while keeping one foot in bounds for the touchdown. Saunders' combination of quickness and acceleration was simply too much for Belue on the play.

Cornerback Zack Sanchez's interception

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Sooners were able to confuse AJ McCarron on occasion with their pass rush.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops deserves the credit for this one. Dime back Kass Everett and Lynn both blitzed on the play, but neither player appeared to be blitzing until six seconds remained on the play clock, and McCarron didn’t have time to change the play. OU rushed seven defenders, leaving its secondary in one-on-one situations.

Everett, who was five yards behind the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, was in McCarron’s face when the Bama quarterback threw the ball. Sanchez, knowing the blitz was on, jumped the hot route for the interception in front of Amari Cooper, who stopped his route for some reason. Alabama actually picked up the blitz well, but OU just brought too many defenders to block. Sanchez made a great play and Cooper didn’t.

Geneo Grissom’s touchdown to seal the game

Cyrus Kouandjio is probably still waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares of trying to block Sooners linebacker Eric Striker. The sophomore blew past the All-SEC left tackle to force a fumble by McCarron that was scooped up by Grissom and returned eight yards for a touchdown.

The play is notable because it was a mirror representation of the key to OU’s win. The Sooners were able to get pressure on McCarron while rushing four defenders. Striker got to McCarron less than three seconds after the snap and defensive end Charles Tapper, after a stunt, drove his man back into McCarron’s face, preventing him from stepping up into the pocket to avoid Striker. Both players won their individual battles and the result was the game-sealing touchdown.
Oklahoma shocked the nation with its 45-31 win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Here are five stats that defined the Sooners' best win of the season.

Trevor Knight's 94.7 adjusted QBR: Knight’s adjusted QBR was the second best by a quarterback against the Crimson Tide this season, only behind LSU’s Zach Mettenberger. Knight finished 32 of 44 for 348 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the best performance of his young career. Knight’s 11.07 expected points added on clutch plays was four points better than any quarterback Alabama played this season including Mettenberger, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Auburn’s Nick Marshall. Simply put, Knight is the reason OU won the game.

Knight’s 14 pass attempts in the first quarter: That number reveals the brilliance behind the game plan from OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. The Sooners, despite their lackluster passing attack in the regular season, entered the game with a plan to use Knight and the passing game to win, not a running game that was the foundation of the offense all season. Alabama was going to force OU to beat to beat it with the pass. And OU’s pass-heavy game plan caught the Tide completely off guard.

OU’s 5.8 yards per play: The Sooners’ 5.8 yards per play average was the second most allowed by Alabama this season behind Texas A&M. It was the best offensive performance of the season for the Sooners, particularly through the air. After averaging less than 200 passing yards per game this season, the Sooners’ 348 passing yards were their best since Sept. 14 against Tulsa.

Lacoltan Bester's completion percentage: Much like Knight, Bester saved his best for last. The senior caught all six passes thrown his way, a 100 percent completion rate, finishing with 105 receiving yards and one touchdown. He showed signs he could be a playmaker throughout the season but had the best game of his two-year OU career in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama’s turnover percentage: The Crimson Tide turned the ball over on 28.6 percent of their drives, a season’s best for OU’s defense. The unit struggled to slow the Crimson Tide on the ground or through the air, allowing a season-worst 516 yards but they took the ball away enough that those horrible numbers didn’t matter.
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.

Allstate Sugar Bowl: Three thoughts

January, 3, 2014
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Oklahoma pulled off one of the great upsets of this bowl season Thursday with a 45-31 victory over heavily favored and No. 3 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Three things we learned about the No. 11 Sooners following their biggest win in a long time.

1. Knight’s big moment: Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight got the start, his fifth this season, and absolutely shined. Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns to guide an Oklahoma offense that put up 45 points on one of the nation’s toughest defenses. The knock on Knight in his inconsistent debut season was his accuracy, but you wouldn’t have known that on Thursday. He hit on a career-best 32 of his 44 attempts and was as sharp as he was aggressive. Too often we can make too much of a bowl-game performance and what it means, but this was a legitimate breakthrough. The Sooners, it seems, have finally found their triggerman.

2. Big 12 tempo pays off: In the battle of Big 12 vs. SEC, who would’ve figured Alabama would have a hard time keeping up with a Sooner offense that went surprisingly high tempo? We saw the effects Auburn’s quick attack had on confusing Tide defenders, and Bob Stoops and Josh Heupel deserve plenty of praise for turning up their speed in bowl practices and unleashing a much faster offense, one that gave the Tide fits and got plenty of big plays. Remember, one year ago Oklahoma was the one that couldn’t keep up with Johnny Manziel and the frenetic Texas A&M offense. This time, the Sooners dropped 31 in the first half and Bama couldn’t stop them.

3. What can Oklahoma do in 2014? On paper, the Big 12 looks about as wide open in 2014 as it was going into this season, when four teams all could’ve made legitimate claims they were the league’s best. The Sooners made their case in New Orleans. While they’ll lose several key cogs to graduation -- including Gabe Ikard, Aaron Colvin, Jalen Saunders, Brennan Clay, Trey Millard and Corey Nelson -- this defense could be loaded next fall and Knight will break in some exciting new weapons at the skill spots. Calling them the league’s runaway favorite for 2014 might be premature, but Oklahoma will definitely be in the title hunt again.

NEW ORLEANS -- After the confetti dropped and the band had belted “Boomer Sooner” one last time, the Oklahoma players huddled at midfield for a team photo and waited for coach Bob Stoops to join them.

They waited and waited. After several minutes, they could wait no more. They dashed over to the ESPN camera stage where Stoops and quarterback Trevor Knight still were. And continued the celebration together there.

The Sooners have been waiting and waiting for a program-affirming victory, to show the world they belong back among college football’s best.

That wait is finally over.

Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Sooners bludgeoned Alabama, the game’s preeminent program of the past five years. With their 45-31 victory, they also sent a message.

Oklahoma football is back.

And armed with a young quarterback who just thoroughly outplayed the Heisman Trophy runner-up, the Sooners intend on staying.

“To come down here and show the Sooners are back,” Knight said, “it's something special.”

In New Orleans, Oklahoma was something special.

But this was no fluke. “Propaganda” had none to do with it, either. The Sooners might have been 17-point underdogs in Vegas, but in New Orleans, they were the better team.

“We played how we expected to play, to be quite honest,” Stoops said.

Defensively, Oklahoma sacked Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron seven times and forced four turnovers. On the Crimson Tide’s last drive and final chance to tie the game, the Sooners achieved both. Eric Striker, who is quickly developing into college football’s version of Lawrence Taylor, came barreling around the edge. He crashed into McCarron’s backside, popping the ball loose. Defensive end Geneo Grissom scooped up his second fumble of the night and bounded eight yards into the end zone to clinch the win.

“This game was huge,” said Grissom, who had two sacks to along with his two fumble recoveries. “We were ready to play.”

No one, however, came out more ready to play than Knight.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe Sooners react after scoring a TD against Alabama.
As a redshirting freshman last year, Knight impersonated Heisman quarterback Johnny Manziel on the scout team during bowl practices to prepare the Sooners’ defense for Texas A&M. The impersonation came rather naturally. And the same way Manziel would in the game, Knight carved up Oklahoma’s defense on a daily basis.

Thursday, he carved up Alabama’s.

“He showed the whole country what we've been watching for two years in our practices and our scrimmages,” Stoops said. “He was just exceptional.”

In just his fifth career start, Knight connected on 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns, shredding Alabama’s secondary the way only Manziel has been able to. Knight threw one interception, but even that pass hit his receiver in the hands.

“We’ve been waiting for him to have this kind of performance,” said receiver Lacoltan Bester, who hauled in Knight’s first touchdown pass. “I feel like he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and next year he’s going to show it.”

In the Sugar Bowl, he showed plenty. Especially during one pivotal sequence early in the fourth quarter. Clinging to a 31-24 lead and slowly losing momentum, Oklahoma faced first-and-30 after two straight penalties.

Even then, Knight delivered.

He lofted a perfect pass down the sideline to Bester for a 34-yard gain and a first down to the Alabama 9. Moments later, Knight rolled right, danced around when nobody was initially open, then flicked a pass across the coverage to Sterling Shepard in the end zone, putting the Sooners back up two scores.

“Yeah, that was a key moment,” Stoops said. “The game has started to slow down for him, where he's really starting to feel comfortable in what he can do and who he is.”

Going into the game, the Sooners were 17-point underdogs for a reason.

Not since 2008 had Oklahoma seriously contended for a national title past October. And after snagging six Big 12 championships over a span of nine seasons, the Sooners had captured only one outright conference title in five years. This season had been more of the same, as the Sooners lost to Texas by 16 points and to Baylor by 29.

But these Super Sooners of the Superdome were not the team of the past five years. And with Knight back to go along with several rising defensive stars, these Super Sooners figure to be the Oklahoma team of the next five years.

“Shows we can play with anybody,” said Stoops, who added he’ll no longer have to dodge punches for calling the SEC’s perceived depth as “propaganda.”

“I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well,” Stoops said of the Tide. “So enough of that.”

Truth be told, Alabama had gone through pretty much everyone the past five years and fared pretty well with national championships.

But Thursday, the Crimson Tide couldn’t go through Oklahoma.

A program that’s been waiting to announce its return to college football’s national stage.

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
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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
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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.
NEW ORLEANS -- "The King" tweeted it best.

"What's great about playing Bama," legendary former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer wrote on Twitter this week, "is they are the team to find how good you are or how far you have to go."

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezHow good are Bob Stoops' Sooners? We'll find out in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (ESPN, 8:30 ET), the Sooners will play in the ultimate barometer game against third-ranked Alabama.

It's a game that will reveal where the Sooners are, relative to the Crimson Tide. And just how far they have to go.

"How could it not be that?" Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops asked. "They're as good a football team as we've played in 15 years.

"So it’s definitely that."

Under coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide have become the standard-bearers in college football. Since 2009, Alabama has won three national championships, and only the wildest ending in college football history prevented the Tide from playing for another.

"They're obviously the program the last five years that has set the bar in college football," Sooners co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "Is it any more of a benchmark than any other game? Probably so."

Under Stoops, Oklahoma once set the bar in college football. At the turn of the millennium, the Sooners played for three national titles in five years, and captured the championship in Y2K with a defensive flattening of Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Like the Tide of now, the Sooners of then rolled in top-five recruiting classes every February. And every April, Oklahoma produced a lion's share of first-round draft picks.

But that was then.

And in the present, the Sooners have fallen on hard times -- at least according to the towering expectations that apply to the likes of an Alabama or an Oklahoma.

"We win 10 games every year," said center Gabe Ikard, "and people feel that we’ve fallen off."

True, the Sooners haven't fallen off into a canyon like their Red River brethren (even though Texas did dismantle Oklahoma this year in Dallas). But in Norman, 10-win seasons minus the championships ring hollow.

It has been six seasons since the Sooners seriously contended for a national title past October. And after seizing six Big 12 championships over a span of nine seasons, Oklahoma has only one outright conference title since 2008.

This November, once they fell 41-12 to Baylor -- yes, the same Baylor that Central Florida roasted Wednesday night in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- the Sooners weren’t even a factor in the Big 12 race, much less the national one.

At the moment, Alabama owns RecruitingNation's No. 1 class, while Oklahoma's just barely cracks the top 25. Last year alone, the Crimson Tide furnished the NFL with three first-round draft picks. The Sooners, meanwhile, have had just one first-rounder (OT Lane Johnson) since 2010.

But just because the results have tapered off in Norman doesn’t mean the expectations have.

And against Alabama, the Sooners will find out where they stand.

"This is definitely going to show what kind of team we have right now," said Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders. "What type of players we have at OU. Where we stand nationally."

Lately, the Sooners haven’t stood quite as tall.

As a testament to Stoops' unrivaled, long-term consistency, Oklahoma still managed to grind out 10 victories in 2012 despite having no running game and a shaky defense. But whenever the Sooners faced a quality opponent last season, they were vanquished. Kansas State out-executed them in the Big 12 opener, Notre Dame smashed them in the fourth quarter, and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, well, he just made them look ridiculous in an AT&T Cotton Bowl rout.

As a result, Oklahoma opened 2013 outside the top 10 in the preseason polls for the first time since Stoops' second year.

Even though the Sooners stunned Oklahoma State in the 2013 Big 12 regular-season finale to sneak their way into the BCS, Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged them as 16½-point underdogs against the mighty Tide. That, by the way, is the third-largest point spread in BCS history, behind only this year's Baylor-UCF Fiesta Bowl and the 17-point line Oklahoma was handed over Connecticut in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.

In other words -- at least according to Vegas -- the gap between Alabama and Oklahoma right now is roughly equal to the gap between Oklahoma and Connecticut then.

"They're a great, great team," Stoops said of the Tide. "Great talent across the board."

When facing great talent, however, comes great opportunity. To ascend back atop college football's summit, the Sooners have to start somewhere. They'll find no more opportune setting than the Sugar.

"They’ve been so dominant," said Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay, "that if we come out with a victory, it would definitely say we're a national championship-contending-type team."

The Sooners can't secure a national championship overnight. And they certainly can't on Thursday night. But they can send a message. And in doing so, also can launch their climb back to the top.

"Winning this game would be big," Ikard said. "Big for recruiting, big for the program, big for the fan base.

"It would show that we're still one of the premier, top-five programs in the country."

The Sooners haven’t been a top-five program lately. But in New Orleans they get to find out how good they really are.

And just how far they have to go.
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.

Oklahoma can give the program -- and the Big 12 -- a landmark victory Thursday night over No. 3 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Here are 10 reasons why the Sooners could pull off the upset against the two-time defending national champions:

1. Jalen Saunders’ playmaking: The most versatile playmaker in this game will be wearing OU’s shade of crimson. Saunders is capable of breaking off big plays on receptions, returns and rushes, as Oklahoma State found out in Bedlam. Saunders is the kind of game-breaker capable of carrying an underdog to an upset.

2. Alabama apathy: After playing in the national championship game three of the past four years, playing in the Sugar is a bit of a step down. The Crimson Tide fans seem to be unenthusiastic about this game. Will the players be, too? The Sooners, meanwhile, have everything to play for. There’s no doubt OU will come out fired up.

3. Alabama focus: The Crimson Tide have several underclassmen who could be early entries to the NFL draft. How many of them will be 100 percent focused on this game? The Sooners, conversely, might not have a single player leave early. Their focus should be fully on this game.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezDon't count out teams coached by Bob Stoops that enter bowl games as underdogs.
4. Sooners thriving as the underdog: OU’s recent record as a heavy favorite has been suspect. But the Sooners thrived late in the season as underdogs. They knocked off Kansas State and Oklahoma State on the road to close out the regular season as underdogs. There’s precedent for Bob Stoops-coached teams playing great in big bowl games as big underdogs, as well. Just ask Florida State, which fell to the Sooners despite being double-digit favorites in the 2000 national championship game.

5. Special teams: The one area that the Sooners hold a decisive edge over Alabama is special teams. Saunders is an all-conference punt returner. Roy Finch leads the Big 12 in kickoff returns. And Michael Hunnicutt is a reliable placekicker, while the Crimson Tide don’t seem to have much confidence in Cade Foster, who missed three field goals in the Auburn game. A big play on special teams could swing this game the way of the Sooners. Which, after the Iron Bowl, is something Alabama fans understand all too well.

6. Eric Striker off the edge: The sophomore linebacker has been virtually unblockable on blitzes this season. Alabama has given up the fifth-fewest sacks in the country this season, so quarterback AJ McCarron is not accustomed to dealing with pressure. If Striker can get into the Alabama backfield, he could wreak havoc.

7. Colvin on Cooper: Alabama sophomore wideout Amari Cooper is one of the most explosive wide receivers in the country. In the Iron Bowl, Cooper gashed Auburn for 178 receiving yards on six catches. When McCarron looks downfield off play-action, Cooper is who he is looking for. Cooper said this week the Sooners didn’t have anyone in their secondary capable of covering him. But the fact is, the Sooners have one of the best cover corners in college football in Aaron Colvin. Colvin has been banged up all season, which has limited his effectiveness. But with the time off, he’s healthier than he’s been all season and is capable of blanketing Cooper, regardless of what Cooper says.

8. Sooner coyness: OU basically knows what Alabama will do and has been able to prepare accordingly. Because the Sooners haven’t revealed whether they’re starting Trevor Knight or Blake Bell at quarterback, the Crimson Tide have basically had to prepare for two different offensive schemes. Time spent working on one scheme is time not spent working on the other. This gives the Sooners some competitive edge.

9. Bama against the zone-read: Alabama had a difficult time slowing down Auburn’s zone-read attack in the Iron Bowl. If the Sooners go with Knight at quarterback, that’s pretty much the offense the Crimson Tide will be facing again. OU won’t have Nick Marshall or Tre Mason in its backfield. But the Tigers gave OU a blueprint on how to move the ball against the Tide.

10. Sign of the times: Before this week, only six bowl underdogs of at least two touchdowns had won outright since 1990. This week alone, Texas Tech and UCF became the seventh and eighth. The Sooners are heavy underdogs. But maybe this is the bowl season of the heavy underdog.

Video: Oklahoma DE P.L. Lindley

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
2:30
PM ET

Jake Trotter talks to Oklahoma DE P.L. Lindley prior to the Sooners' Sugar Bowl matchup with Alabama on Thursday.

Video: Oklahoma CB Zack Sanchez

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
11:30
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Jake Trotter interviews Oklahoma CB Zack Sanchez leading up to Oklahoma's matchup with Alabama on Thursday in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Oklahoma focused on stopping Mosley

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
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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."

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