Sugar Bowl 2014: Biggest Keys to Victory for Alabama and Oklahoma

Jesse ReedCorrespondent IDecember 10, 2013

DALLAS - OCTOBER 02:  Jeremy Beal #44 and Jamarkus McFarland #97 of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrate a quarterback sack against the Texas Longhorns in the first quarter at the Cotton Bowl on October 2, 2010 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Alabama and Oklahoma earned berths to the 2014 Sugar Bowl after putting together successful regular-season campaigns.

'Bama's only loss of the season came at the worst possible time, as Auburn knocked off the two-time defending champs in Week 14—just one weekend before the SEC Championship Game and two weeks before the final BCS rankings were released. 

Oklahoma lost twice in 2013 (Baylor and Texas) but finished the season strong with three big wins—including an upset victory over Oklahoma State in Week 15.

The Crimson Tide will likely be heavy favorites to win the prestigious bowl game, but the Sooners could shock with a win under the right circumstances.

With that in mind, here's a look at what both teams must do in order to win the 2014 Sugar Bowl. 


Alabama Must Maintain Gap Discipline and Shut Down Oklahoma's Running Game

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 30:  Tre Mason #21 of the Auburn Tigers carries the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the first quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Auburn's triple-option offense gave Alabama's defense fits, which isn't something that happens on a regular basis. Thanks to huge games by Tre Mason and Nick Marshall, the Tigers rushed for 296 yards and two touchdowns in that game. 

Remarkably, even after giving up nearly 300 yards in the Iron Bowl, Alabama finished the regular season with the nation's No. 11-ranked run defense, allowing just 108.3 yards per game.

Even more impressive is the fact that there were only five total rushing touchdowns scored against Alabama all year long. 

NORMAN, OK - AUGUST 31:   Quarterback Trevor Knight #9 hands off to running back Brennan Clay #24 of the Oklahoma Sooners during the game against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks August 31, 2013 at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma
Brett Deering/Getty Images

But Oklahoma's running game is formidable, and any lapses in gap discipline will result in huge gains on the ground. The Sooners come into the Sugar Bowl featuring the 18th-ranked running offense in college football, averaging 235.8 yards per game.

It's not yet know which quarterback—Blake Bell or Trevor Knight—will start for Oklahoma in this game. Knight brings more dynamism to the running game, while Bell is a more polished passer.

Operating out of the read-option, either one is capable of making big gains on the ground, and they complement running back Brennan Clay, who is a great between-the-tackles back.

If Oklahoma can get going on the ground, then the Sooners will have a chance to steal this game. On the other hand, Oklahoma's passing game isn't good enough to stand on its own, meaning the Sooners will surely lose if 'Bama shuts down the running game.


Oklahoma Must Dominate the Line of Scrimmage and Rattle AJ McCarron

Alabama has featured a dominant defense and running game the past handful of years under Nick Saban, but this year's team features a dynamic passing attack capable of taking a game over. Thanks to the outstanding play of senior quarterback AJ McCarron, the Crimson Tide are as balanced an offensive team as you'll find in the nation.

McCarron passed for 2,676 yards with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions this year, and he's gotten better over the course of the season. In his last six games, the two-time national champion passed for 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Nov 16, 2013; Starkville, MS, USA;  Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron (10) rolls out passing against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the first quarter at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

For his exemplary play, McCarron was recently named one of the six Heisman Trophy finalists, as noted by College GameDay:

One of the reasons he's had so much success this year is that teams haven't been able to pressure him into many mistakes. Alabama's offensive line has surrendered just 10 sacks all year, which ranks No. 6 in all of college football.

Oct 5, 2013; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Eric Striker (19) and defensive end Chaz Nelson (99) try and sack TCU Horned Frogs quarterback Trevone Boykin (2) in the second quarter at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Cred
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma's defense has racked up 26 sacks this year, and the pressure up front has resulted in 14 interceptions. The Sooners will need to step it up a notch when they take on McCarron's Crimson Tide. If he's allowed to sit back in the pocket and read the field, then the Sooners won't have a chance to win the game.


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