By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Dec. 31, 2013
There haven’t been all that many dark days for Alabama football since Nick Saban took over in 2007, but the few that occurred have been among some of the darkest in all of the program’s history.
The 2008 Crimson Tide team opened the season with 12 straight victories, only to lose a potential national title shot at the hands of Florida and quarterback Tim Tebow in the SEC Championship Game. While Alabama was admittedly ahead of schedule in even getting to the game in the first place, the loss was still a bitter pill and served as motivation for the entire 2009 year. Highlights of the 2009 SEC Championship Game, for instance, make their appearance in Alabama’s pregame video under the headline “Redemption.”
After Florida knocked Alabama out of the BCS title shot, the Crimson Tide found itself in New Orleans, playing in the Sugar Bowl against Utah, at the time a Mountain West Conference school trying to prove it belonged in the big leagues. Most observers expected a blowout.
Well, they got one.
Utah dismantled Alabama in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 31-17 score indicated. Alabama’s offense looked anemic, although the Tide had a pretty good excuse for it: Left tackle Andre Smith had been suspended for the bowl game, and line coach Joe Pendry elected to shuffle the other starters rather than simply promote Smith’s backup. Guard Mike Johnson ended up at left tackle, but for only a portion of the first quarter before he fell injured. That forced further shuffling, as right tackle Drew Davis ended up at left tackle, freshman John Michael Boswell replaced Davis and David Ross ended up taking the open guard slot. Alabama never looked in sync and never challenged the Utes.
Defensively, the story was actually worse. Utah kept Alabama off-balance throughout the game, and the Crimson Tide displayed some of its least inspired play at any point in the Nick Saban era. Utah used the game as a springboard to gain membership in the PAC-12, while Alabama bore the brunt of jokes from fans of other SEC programs for letting a no-name team beat the SEC representative to the Sugar Bowl.
If Alabama were to lose to Oklahoma in this Sugar Bowl, the backlash would almost certainly be far less severe. The Sooner program is miles ahead of where Utah was, is or has ever been. But the difference in Alabama and Oklahoma in 2013 is not much different than the difference between Alabama and Utah in 2008: Alabama is the much better team – even though, like in 2008, Alabama will be playing this game minus a key starter on its offensive line.
One of the complaints about Bob Stoops’ teams at Oklahoma is that they have grown progressively softer and more dependent on a spread passing game. But in 2013 – statistically, at least – that wasn’t the case. Oklahoma finished 18th in rushing offense but only 99th in passing offense, which had as much to do with weakness at the quarterback position as anything else. Oklahoma bases from a three-wide attack, although the Sooners will use a fullback situationally. Even with the struggles in the passing game, this offense is about as close to a traditional Big 12 spread offense as you’ll find. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that has shown better balance than Oklahoma (21st rushing, 58th passing) and has more weapons overall.
Oklahoma’s QB group never really got off the ground in 2013, thanks to injuries and inconsistency. Oklahoma figures to use at least two quarterbacks in this game and perhaps three. The common denominator to all three of them is they can both run and pass. Blake Bell figures to start. He was 140-of-233 (60.1%) on the year for 1,648 yards, 12 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Bell also added 255 yards on 75 carries (3.4 avg.) running the ball, but scored no touchdowns on the ground. Provided Trevor Knight is completely healthy, he should also get some work. Knight was 47-of-90 (52.2%) for 471 yards, 5 touchdowns and 4 picks on the season, but is suffering from a hand injury. He and Bell split the starts this season. Knight is a more effective runner than Bell, adding 438 yards on 62 carries (7.1 avg.) and scoring 2 touchdowns. If Knight can’t go, Kendal Thompson (4-of-13, 30.8%, 64 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 4 carries, 20 yards, 5.0 avg., 0 TD) came off the bench to play in two games down the stretch. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron (207-of-306, 67.6%, 2,676 yards, 26 TD, 5 INT), who lacks the running ability of Oklahoma’s quarterbacks but more than makes up for it with superior passing skills. Blake Sims will be his backup. Dual-threat QBs have given Alabama trouble recently, but typically not in the system Oklahoma utilizes. Judged mostly on passing merits, this one isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama
Oklahoma’s depth took a huge hit earlier in the year when Damien Williams was suspended. That left Oklahoma with essentially one running back, Brennan Clay (158 carries, 913 yards, 5.8 avg., 6 TD). Clay is about the size of Alabama’s Kenyan Drake, but doesn’t have Drake’s burst. He’s a quality back but not really a game changer, and isn’t particularly active in the passing game (9 receptions in 12 games). With Williams gone, Roy Finch has become Clay’s backup. Finch has carried 59 times for 347 yards, a 5.9-yard average, but has yet to score a touchdown. Finch is also 5’7”, 165 pounds and isn’t a threat to pound the ball inside. Freshmen Keith Ford and Alex Ross add depth, but neither is expected to see a lot of work in this game. Alabama’s situation is a bit up in the air. T.J. Yeldon will start, and his 1,163 yards, 6.1-yard average and 13 touchdowns are clear evidence of a superior running game. But the backup situation is unknown. Kenyan Drake got just 4 carries against Auburn and seems to have mostly been benched after ball security issues came to a head against Mississippi State. Derrick Henry, Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and Altee Tenpenny could all get work in this game in relief of Yeldon. Yeldon also has had issues with hitting the hole quickly and several short-yardage stops against Auburn magnified the problem. Alabama still holds the edge here, but it’s not what it used to be. Advantage: Alabama
Oklahoma has struggled to find playmakers at this position all season. The best of the bunch is either Jalen Saunders or Sterling Shepard. With the exception of one long bomb, Saunders has mostly been just a possession receiver, and his 5’9”, 160-pound size leaves him at a disadvantage. Shepard isn’t much bigger, at 5’10” and 193 pounds, but he’s a bit more capable at making plays downfield. The biggest problem has been a lack of depth; aside from third starter Lacoltan Bester, one of the few Sooners with decent height, OU hasn’t been effective in pushing defenses. Jaz Reynolds and Durron Neal are the only other players who figure to play. The Sooners all but ignore the tight end position altogether. Brannon Green has 1 catch on the season and that is the sum total for the entire depth chart there. Alabama counters with its top receiver group of Kevin Norwood, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and Kenny Bell, along with Chris Black, Raheem Falkins and Parker Barrineau providing depth. Cooper got off to a slow start, but is now playing at an optimal level. Alabama also holds an edge at tight end, with Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard being far more productive than OU’s group. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams will have starters out for this game. Oklahoma lost both guard Adam Shead and tackle Tyrus Thompson to injuries at the end of the year, and while both have a slim chance of playing, neither is expected to. With Shead and Thompson out, OU will likely have Daryl Williams at left tackle with Derek Farniok at right tackle, while Bronson Irwin and Nila Kasitati start at the guard positions. Gabe Ikard is the center. Alabama, though, must also reshuffle its line after right guard Anthony Steen was lost to a shoulder injury. The left side of the line will be the familiar Kouandjio brother duo, Cyrus at tackle and Arie at guard, but the rest of the lineup is still being settled. Austin Shepherd figures to start at right tackle, with Ryan Kelly at either center or right guard. If Kelly starts at right guard, Chad Lindsay will get the call at center. If Kelly remains at center, either Kellen Williams, Alphonse Taylor or Leon Brown will get the call at right guard. Up to this point, the Sooner line has been solid, ranking 15th in the country in sacks allowed and a respectable 51st in tackles for loss allowed. But losing two starters compared to Alabama losing one is big – as is the fact that Alabama’s depth situation was already dominant. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama rarely faces a defense similar to its own, but will this time around. Both teams base out of a three-man front, although Alabama’s 3-4 over/under differs slightly from Oklahoma’s 3-4 base. Oklahoma spends practically all its time in a 3-3-5 look, while Alabama will fronts more often. Both teams have been effective. Alabama ranks 5th in total defense while Oklahoma is 14th, an especially impressive stat given the offensive firepower present in the Big 12. Perhaps the most surprising is that Oklahoma leads the nation in defensive 4th-down conversion percentage and is 2nd in first downs allowed – especially since OU is 114th in red zone defense. Stoops’ background is in defense, but the condemnation of softness within the OU program has recently extended to both sides of the ball.
OU’s line is solid, although like Alabama, the Sooners lack a specific, big-time playmaker up front. End Charles Tapper is probably the closest, with 9 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks on the year. Jordan Wade starts at nosetackle, while Geneo Grissom and Chuka Ndulue will split the other end slot. This is a smallish line, with the ends averaging less than 270 pounds each and Wade not topping the 300-pound mark. Alabama will counter with Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan outside. A’Shawn Robinson is quickly developing into the dominant playmaker Alabama seeks, and he’s probably the best single player on either team’s line. He’ll rotate all across the line along with Darren Lake in the middle and Jonathan Allen outside. Dakota Ball, Korren Kirven and Anthony Orr will add depth. All the defensive categories will end up being close calls but this might be the closest of all. Alabama gets an edge based on the size differential but it’s not a huge advantage. Advantage: Alabama
Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander are Oklahoma’s top two tacklers coming into this game, and both are active players with good lateral quickness and consistency. Eric Striker, though, is the best playmaker of the bunch, although he sometimes disappears for stretches of the game. Size is the biggest issue here, with the largest of the three players, Shannon, coming in at around 225 pounds. In that regard, Oklahoma looks more like a 4-3 team than a team that uses a three-man front. All three players are underclassmen as well. Depth is an issue, as Jordan Evans and Aaron Franklin rarely play. The loss of Corey Nelson at midseason was huge. Alabama counters with C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest in the middle, flanked by Denzel Devall and Adrian Hubbard at the outside positions. Xzavier Dickson has been suspended and won’t play in this game, which will likely push Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams or Dillon Lee into a greater role. Tana Patrick will provide depth inside along with Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland. This is Alabama’s biggest edge among the defensive categories, thanks mostly to experience and superior size, although Oklahoma appears quicker as a whole. Advantage: Alabama
Oklahoma will use five defensive backs so often that it’s more fair to evaluate a five-DB look as its base. Zack Sanchez and Aaron Colvin will start at the corners, with Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes at safety and Julian Wilson as the nickelback. All five players are dangerous in pass defense, and the Sooners have picked off 14 passes on the year as a team. Also, whereas size is an issue in the front six, it’s not an issue here. All five starters are 6’0” or taller, and there is plenty of depth coming off the bench. Alabama racked up superior stats this year, but the Tide never really found a cornerback to start opposite Deion Belue. Cyrus Jones figures to get the call in this game, although Bradley Sylve, John Fulton, Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson are also options. A knee injury suffered by safety Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix late in Auburn prep also looms large; Clinton-Dix is expected to start this game but might be limited. Landon Collins will start opposite him, while Jarrick Williams’ role figures to expand. Geno Smith offers depth, and Jabriel Washington might also get some work. Alabama essentially covered up a corner position all year, and just as Sylve claimed it, he suffered an ankle sprain. The fact it’s still an issue, and Clinton-Dix won’t be 100 percent, gives this one to the Sooners. Advantage: Oklahoma
This one will be a hard call, because the two teams are mirror images of one another. Oklahoma’s placekicking situation is rock solid behind the leg of Michael Hunnicutt, who is 23-of-26 for the year. But the Sooners are a decrepit 113th in net punting. They do, however, rank 4th in punt returns, and a respectable 41st in kickoff returns. Alabama leads the nation in net punting, and Cody Mandell is far more versatile than OU’s Jed Barnett. But the placekicking, which had been solid all year long, melted down against Auburn. Cade Foster is still the likely starter in this game, but Adam Griffith made the final attempt against Auburn and could play if Foster’s confidence is too shaken. Alabama is 7th in punt returns and 14th in kickoff returns. The real question here is Foster’s mindset, and specifically whether Alabama’s iffy kicking game is worse than Oklahoma’s ability to cover punts. In this case, at least OU is a known quantity; Alabama no longer is. Advantage: Oklahoma
Alabama leads in six categories, Oklahoma in two. Each team’s defensive line controls its respective matchup with the opponent’s offensive line, although Alabama holds the bigger edge in its matchup there than Oklahoma does in its matchup.
Were this game being played for something actually meaningful, Alabama would be a strong favorite. Twice since the reconstruction of the Bama program under Saban, Alabama has found itself in a bowl game with no title on the line. In 2008, Utah all but ran Alabama out of the building. But in 2010, Alabama crushed Michigan State and used the momentum from that game to start its 2011 title run.
At the risk of insulting the Oklahoma program, Alabama’s program is a discernible step up from the Sooner program at this point. Oklahoma has been putting solid teams on the field the last few years, but not championship teams. The loss to Auburn didn’t change that fact, either. Alabama has a mild talent advantage throughout, and would likely also lead the defensive backs category had injuries not taken their toll.
Thus, Alabama should win this game. It figures to be close, and Oklahoma won’t be intimidated the way Michigan State was three years ago.
But Alabama’s greatest opponent in this game won’t be Oklahoma. It will be Alabama itself.