Nov 23, 2013; Manhattan, KS, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Brennan Clay (24) runs the ball against the Kansas State Wildcats during the first half at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Big 12 Bowl Preview: Underdog Success Is Sugar To Sooners' Taste


Next to the Baylor-Central Florida Fiesta Bowl game, the 2014 Sugar Bowl game between two of college football’s biggest names, Alabama and Oklahoma, looms as potentially the worst matchup of the college bowl season.

 

The Las Vegas oddsmakers have Alabama as a 15-point favorite. That is the most points by which Oklahoma has been an underdog since Bob Stoops became the OU head coach in 1999.

It’s not that Oklahoma is not a good football team. They won 10 games, after all, a position in which 95 percent of the schools in the country would like to be. OU has won 10 or more games in 12 of the 15 years Stoops has been at Oklahoma, and the Sooners have played in four BCS National Championship games under Stoops, winning it all in the 2000 season.

The issue this season is that this Oklahoma team is very good, otherwise it wouldn’t have finished second in the highly competitive Big 12 standings, but not great like some of Stoops’ previous Big 12 championship teams and clearly not by historical Sooner football standards. And their reward for pulling road upsets in their final two regular-season games at Kansas State and Oklahoma State, which helped them turn what easily could have been a so-so 8-4 season into an improbable 10-2 year, is an invitation to the BCS Sugar Bowl to play Alabama, arguably the best team in college football, despite what the BCS standings say.

Enough said. Alabama was one second away from potentially finishing off a perfect season and heading to the BCS National Championship, with a chance to win its third consecutive national championship. Oklahoma, by the same token, was 19 seconds away from securing a likely spot in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, where Kansas State was a winner over Michigan on Saturday night.

So that’s where we are. That is the path Alabama and Oklahoma took in their journey to New Orleans for the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl showdown. Both teams are ranked in the top 25 nationally in rushing offense as well as total defense and defending against the pass. Neither team is heavily reliant or necessarily prolific in the passing game. Both, however, have highly capable receivers with breakaway speed and big-play ability.

Statistically speaking, the strength of both defenses is defending against the pass, although you would have to give Alabama senior and Heisman Trophy candidate this season A.J. McCarron a huge advantage at the quarterback position because the two OU starters at QB this season do not throw the ball as well as past Sooner quarterbacks, particularly under defensive pressure. When McCarron throws the ball, the receiver he targets the most is wide receiver Amari Cooper.

“They are probably the most complete team we have played when you look at the offensive line, you look at the skill, you look at the running backs, you look at the tight ends,” said Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mile Stoops Sunday after the Sooners arrived in New Orleans. “They (Alabama) present huge challenges across the board. They make you defend the football field a little differently than a lot of teams we see in our conference. They come at you with a lot of tight ends and a lot of size and physicality (on offense).”

Both teams want to be able to run the ball in this game, and for the Sooners that will be absolutely critical if they want to have any chance of keeping this game close. Senior Brennan Clay is the workhorse of the Oklahoma running attack, which averages 235 yards per game. OU is missing two major contributors to the run game. senior Fullback Trey Millard tore his ACL in the eighth game of the season and senior running back Damien William, the team’s leading rusher a year ago, was dismissed from the team after the Baylor loss for undisclosed rules violations. When redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight is under center for the Sooners it gives them an additional weapon who is good making plays with his legs.

The Alabama defense is one of the best in the country against the run, allowing just over 100 yards per game, 11th best in the country. The Crimson Tide also run the ball well, with sophomore T.J. Yelson, with 1,100 yards on the ground for the season, getting most of the carries.

Alabama gives up the second fewest points in the country (11.3 per game), This is a big problem for the Sooners, who have had trouble scoring points against the good teams they’ve gone up against this season. The Crimson Tide not only are extremely stingy giving up points, but they also don’t allow many teams to reach the red zone. Alabama has limited red-zone possessions to just 22 all season long. This could be a big problem for OU, which has been successful cashing in touchdowns inside the opponents’ 20-yard line just 50 percent of the time.

Both teams are good at protecting the ball and limiting turnovers. OU has 15 giveaways and a plus five turnover ratio, and Alabama has turned it over 12 times and is plus six in the turnover-ratio department. A key stat to keep in mind: Oklahoma is 36-2 under Bob Stoops when it doesn’t commit a turnover.

This is the fifth meeting all-time between these two historic big names in college football. The Sooners hold a 2-1-1 lead in the series and are 2-0 against Alabama under Stoops.

Five Things To Watch For In The Game

  • Oklahoma will count on its running game to fuel its offensive game plan. The fact that the Crimson Tide ranks fourth in the country defending the pass, and OU doesn’t throw the ball with high effectiveness anyway, makes it even more critical that the Sooners have some success running the football. When the Sooners run for more than 200 yards in a game, which they have eight times this season, they are 62-1 under head coach Bob Stoops. Alabama has given up 0ver 200 yards rushing only one time this season: in the last-second loss at Auburn.
  • Bob Stoops refuses to reveal who will start at quarterback for the Sooners until game time. This means he will probably go with a two-quarterback system, which he does not like to do. But this will give OU the flexibility to execute better in certain offensive packages and depending on the situation. The problem is, it may also signal to the Crimson Tide defense when the Sooners plan to run and when they are setting up for a passing play, because Trevor Knight is a better runner and better in a zone-read situations, and Bell is a better passer.
  • Oklahoma will need some Sooner Magic to pull off this victory. In real terms, though, Stoops & Co. will need to keep this game close and win the turnover battle to have any realistic chance of upsetting the Mighty Crimson Tide. The Sooners are 11-3 over the last four seasons  in games decided by eigfht points or less. Alabama has an overall record of 60 wins and just six losses in the past five years. Only one of those six defeats was by eight points or less.
  • Against the three best teams on its schedule (Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State, with a combined overall record of 29-7), OU scored an average of 19 points. That won’t get it done against a team that has given up an average of 11.5 points all season.
  • Oklahoma has won 42 consecutive games in which it has led at halftime.

Game prediction: Alabama 38, Oklahoma 20 – This is Alabama’s game to lose. The Sooners will have to play a near perfect game, and even that probably won’t be good enough to beat a superior opponent like Alabama.

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Tags: 2014 Sugar Bowl A.J. McCarron Alabama Crimson Tide Big 12 Football Bob Stoops Nick Saban Oklahoma Sooners