Sugar Bowl Preview: Alabama-Oklahoma

Two of college football’s most storied programs take the field on Thursday night in New Orleans. The Sugar Bowl matchup is Oklahoma-Alabama (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). What follows are the Notebook Nine, the key points to know going into the game…

*If you think this game is a mismatch in favor of Alabama, you’re not alone. Las Vegas has established the Crimson Tide as a 16 ½ point favorite, the third-biggest line of the college bowl season (Notre Dame and Baylor being tied for the biggest favorite at 17). The totals line is 51.5, not very large for a game with a spread this big, so that tells you even more about how much the smart money likes ‘Bama. If the Sugar Bowl plays out according to the number, we’re looking at a 34-17 game.

college football bowl history*For two programs with this much history, there’s precious little in the way of head-to-head battles. They played a couple times in 2002-03, when Oklahoma was dominant and Alabama was still five years away from the Nick Saban revival. The only bowl matchup is a 1970 game that ended in a 24-24 tie. We never saw Bear Bryant and Barry Switzer go at it in a really big game.

*The history for Alabama fans to be worried about is more recent, and it’s the Sugar Bowl that followed the 2008 season. The Crimson Tide had lost the SEC Championship Game to Florida, and a chance at the national title. ‘Bama ended up asleep at the wheel against undefeated Utah, fell behind 21-0 and never caught up. On the Oklahoma side the historical concern would be that Bob Stoops and Nick Saban went head-to-head in the Sugar Bowl following the 2003 season and Saban’s LSU team won the game and the national championships.

*Alabama’s offense got off to a slow start this season, with the running game being up-and-down in a difficult four-game opening sequence against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Colorado State and Ole Miss. The soft portion of the schedule in the middle saw the Tide ground attack get some consistency, and T.J. Yeldon, an 1100-yard rusher, had good games down the stretch against both LSU and Auburn.

*Amari Cooper is the big name among the Alabama receivers, but quarterback A.J. McCarron spreads the ball around very well, and names like Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones are on the radar of NFL scouts. McCarron has completed nearly 68% of his passes and gets good yardage on those completions, 8.75 yards-per-attempt.

*The Tide defense has a good reputation and the front seven is stacked with future NFL players, in the same way the offensive line was in 2012. Oklahoma’s running game has been good, but they bogged down against their best opponent in Baylor. That doesn’t speak well to what might happen on Thursday in New Orleans.

*Oklahoma’s rush defense has had serious problems against good teams. Notre Dame, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State all gashed the Sooners for significant yardage on the ground. OU was able to win two of those games, but of the many alarm bells that go off for Oklahoma in this matchup, the run defense’s play against quality is the one going off the loudest.

*Shaky quarterback play has bedeviled Bob Stoops’ offense all year. Blake Bell has posted mediocre passing numbers, and Trevor Knight is more a runner than a passer. Oklahoma has a good talent at receiver in Jalen Saunders, but no one to get him the ball.

*Last summer Stoops threw down the gauntlet against the SEC, saying he was tired of all the talk about the conference. I sympathize with the sentiments, but the reality is that the SEC’s record has been earned on the field. The only way for Stoops to quiet the talk is to go win the football game. Or at least play a nail-biter into the fourth quarter.

I’m picking Alabama, both outright and against the spread in this game. The only reason not to is if you think they won’t show up. That’s a valid concern, but I have the feeling that this group of Tide seniors won’t want to go out with another loss, on top of the Auburn heartbreak.

Keep in mind, Alabama mostly outplayed Auburn, and if not for some questionable game management decisions and losing the third down battle (4/13 for ‘Bama against 8/15 for Auburn), we’d have seen a different result. My psychological diagnosis says Saban has his kids ready, and the football diagnosis is easy—Alabama can name the score. Give the points and take the Under.

Bowl Handicapping Record (through December 30)
Outright Winners: 8-9
ATS: 8-9
Totals: 10-7