If it were next year the Alabama Crimson Tide would be preparing for a rematch against Auburn. Instead, they are getting ready to take on the Oklahoma Sooners in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It's not what the Alabama Crimson Tide wanted, but the Allstate Sugar Bowl is a great consolation prize. Here are a couple key matchups that will decide the game.
A.J. McCarron vs. Sooners' Secondary
Averaging nearly 6.0 yards per carry and 212 rush yards per game, the Tide will get their numbers running the ball. The matchup between A.J. McCarron and the Oklahoma secondary will be important.
Oklahoma ranks No. 15 in the nation against the pass in terms of yards per game. Against the LSU Tigers' No. 16 ranked pass defense, McCarron completed 70 percent of his passes for 179 yards, three scores and no interceptions shown in the video below.
If McCarron's efficiency is akin to that performance, the Tide will cruise to victory. If Oklahoma can do what the Mississippi State Bulldogs or Virginia Tech Hokies did, by forcing interceptions and holding McCarron to under 60 percent completion percentage, then they will have the edge.
Forcing turnovers is difficult against McCarron who has thrown just five interceptions on the year, three of which were in September. His efficiency has caught the eyes of many, including Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.
"I think A.J. McCarron is the best player in the country," Stoops said during the Sugar Bowl teleconference via Andrew Gribble of The Huntsville Times. "I really do. If I had a [Heisman] vote, that's who I'd vote for."
Even if McCarron gets rolling, Alabama will still have to stop the Sooners' offense.
Sooners' Ground Game vs. Crimson Tide Rush Defense
The most important matchup will be Oklahoma's rushing attack against the Alabama defense. The Sooners average 235 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Alabama is No. 11 in the nation with just 108 rushing-yards per game allowed.
What makes the run so crucial to an Oklahoma victory?
After being in the top five the last three years, they're No. 101 in the nation in passing offense. That means the Tide can stack the box and play the run. If the Sooners aren't able to dominate at the line and reel off big runs, then they won't last long in this game.
Alex Apple of Dallas Morning News writes, "Oklahoma's quarterbacks have struggled to win games with their arm this season, and Nick Saban's defense will devote much of its efforts to stopping the Sooners' run game...the Sooners cannot win without a successful running game."
Oklahoma's Blake Bell runs with a slower more powerful style. While Trevor Knight runs a decent option, he isn't on par with Nick Marhsall and doesn't have the aerial threat that Manziel has.
Jalen Saunders vs. Crimson Tide Special Teams
If Alabama can stop the run, it may be up to Jalen Saunders to jump start the Sooners' offense with a big play in the punt return game. It's his matchup with the Alabama special teams that draws some attention.
ESPN's Jake Trotter had high praise for Saunders, "The true strength of this team, however, is special teams. Jalen Saunders, who had a touchdown return in Bedlam, is one of the most electric returners in the country."
Saunders has two touchdowns on the season and an average of 16.8 yards per return, which is good for No. 5 in the nation.
A return for a touchdown or even one that puts the Sooners in good field position could give the Sooners the edge they need to win this game.
Saunders first punt return touchdown, shown in the video below, certainly helped propel them to a victory over Iowa State.
Each of these matchups will decide the Sugar Bowl. They are, of course, all related to play on the field. It's always difficult to tell how a team like Alabama will come to play after having National Championship hopes erased.
Will it be like 2008?
That year Alabama had lost the SEC Championship game to the Florida Gators and went on to lose the 2009 Sugar Bowl to the Utah Utes.
Or will it be like 2010?
That year Alabama lost the Iron Bowl to Cam Newton's Auburn Tigers. It was also the last year that the Tide didn't play in the title game. They routed a Michigan State Spartans team in the Capitol One Bowl, 49-7.
We have to assume Alabama will come ready to play. And if they do, these matchups will decide who wins the 2014 Allstate Sugar Bowl.
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