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Sugar Bowl Preview – 1/2/14

44940aIt was another good New Year’s Day for the SEC as the league took two out of three from the Big Ten and moved to 5-1 overall this bowl season.

 

Allstate Sugar Bowl

#3 Alabama (11-1) vs #11 Oklahoma (10-2)

TV:  8:30pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  Alabama -14.5

Current Line:  Alabama -17

Cool Factor:  Are you kidding?  These are two of the winningest programs in college football history — Bud Wilkinson, Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer, Gene Stallings, etc.  The schools have met just five times previously.  Bob Stoops has stated that the SEC isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and benefits from “propaganda.”  It’s a duel between two coaches who’ve captured BCS crowns.  Take your pick, folks.  While certainly not the most important bowl game this season, the Sugar Bowl might boast the most attractive matchup in terms of history, different regions of the country being represented, name brand value and the like.  Assuming it’s a good game, this one will likely earn the highest ratings of the non-title game bowls.

What’s At Stake:  The legacy of Alabama’s senior class.  The fourth-year seniors have already captured two BCS crowns.  Any fifth-year graybeards have a third title of which to boast.  But this season was supposed to be a cakewalk to a third title in a row and a fourth in five years.  A bungled last-second decision on the part of Nick Saban — really, a 57-yard field goal attempt? — and a once-in-a-lifetime play by Auburn slammed the door shut on Bama’s championship dreams.  Now, 20 years from now, this group will be rightly viewed as one of the biggest collections of heroes in college football history, but if they lose to the Sooners tonight, you better believe there will be a chunk of the spoiled Crimson Tide fanbase who dismiss them.  Anyone have much good to say about the 2008 team that suffered its first loss of the season in the SEC title game to Florida and then went on to get rolled by Utah in that season’s Sugar Bowl?  Fans of all sports are fickle and — at least in the immediate aftermath — a team is only as good as its last game.  If Bama loses, quickly head yourself over to Twitter to just watch the reaction.

Keep An Eye On:  Bama’s psyche.  In 2008, the Crimson Tide went in the tank after losing its first game.  Andre Smith’s surprising suspension was a gut punch before the Sugar Bowl.  And it was apparent the guys in crimson weren’t exactly fired up to face Utah.  Well, there have been no distractions during this year’s bowl run-up and it’s difficult to imagine anyone not getting up for a game with Oklahoma.  But the way Alabama lost its last game, who it lost to, and the fact that it had come to tantalizingly close to fulfilling what many saw as its destiny could cause a bit of a hangover for a team.  We suspect Saban will have his group properly motivated, but until the first five or six minutes play out… there will still a scintilla of doubt.

Hidden Tidbit:  Stoops has said his starting quarterback will be a gametime decision.  Whoever gets the start will lead the nation’s 48th best scoring offense (31.8 points per game) against a defense that’s allowing just 11.3 points per game (#2 in the country).  Oklahoma should have its hands full putting point on the board.  But it’s on defense where the Sooners will have to win this one.  Stoops’ team boasts the Big 12′s best defense overall and third best rush defense.  They must — must — stymie the Tide ground attack (third best in the SEC at 212.0 yards per game).  Bama’s magic number is 125.  With AJ McCarron under center Alabama is 42-1 when it gains 125 rushing yards.  The Red Elephants are just 4-5 when they don’t hit the 125-mark.

Hidden Tidbit #2:  Keep an eye on the special teams matchup in this one.  Alabama led the SEC in punt returns (running three back for scores) and finished third in kickoff returns (with one TD).  Oklahoma was ninth in the 10-team Big 12 in punt coverage and eighth in kick return defense.  Bama, meanwhile, will need to keep an eye on Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders who’s returned two punts for touchdowns himself.  Both teams have also blocked three kicks/punts this season.

Hidden Tidbit #3:  Teams can give up yards all day and all night, but if they keep the other team out of the end zone, they’ll win.  Alabama’s red zone defense was the best in the SEC and third best in America allowing a score on just 63.6% of red zone possessions (and just 50% of those possessions ended in touchdowns).  Oklahoma’s offense ranked seventh in the Big 12 in red zone scoring and just ninth in terms of converting red zone trips in TDs.

Prediction:  Alabama 31-17

 


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