Two traditional powerhouses are set to collide when the No. 11 Oklahoma Sooners and No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide meet in the 2013-14 Sugar Bowl.
While not the sexiest of matchups because both sides enjoy keeping the ball on the ground and playing sound defense, it is difficult to find a bowl game between two more dominant schools. The contest marks the Crimson Tide's third straight BCS berth, while it is No. 9 for the Sooners—which is the second most all time:
Despite such prestige, fans may find it difficult to identify the key players because these teams do not tout typical collegiate air-raid attacks with multiple high-profile superstars.
No, this game will be much more grounded, where only a few players will truly dictate the outcome.
Trevor Knight and Blake Bell, Quarterbacks, Oklahoma
Perhaps no player better understands the importance of this game than Oklahoma freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, as he told the media, per the team's Twitter account:
Trevor Knight - "What a great experience & testament to the game to have two great programs meeting in Sugar Bowl" pic.twitter.com/1GYKzZmW7l— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) December 30, 2013
Knight better also understand he is part of a quarterback rotation that is meant to keep the Crimson Tide guessing during its preparation for the game. Co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel outlined the approach, per the team's website:
Well, we mixed and matched. Some of it was planned and some of it wasn’t. You’ve got a couple of different injuries that happened the last two or three weeks of the season and you try to put those guys in the position to look successful. We’ll have a mixture of a little bit of everything at the Sugar Bowl to give ourselves a chance to win the ball game.
The Sooners have used Knight in tandem with Blake Bell in recent weeks. They took a three-quarterback approach by adding Kendal Thompson to the mix during a 33-24 victory over Oklahoma State to close the season.
Bell has been the primary man under center in 2013 as noted by his 1,648 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. Knight has seen more time near season's end and has 471 passing yards and five scores but also serves a dual-threat role with his 438 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The Alabama defense has had to prepare for both quarterbacks over the course of the last month, not knowing who will see the majority of the playing time. That advantage makes Bell and Knight two of the most important players on the field in New Orleans.
AJ McCarron, Quarterback, Alabama
This year's Heisman runner-up has much to prove in his final collegiate game. AJ McCarron is headed for the 2014 NFL draft, but before doing so, he must avoid an upset at the hands of the Sooners.
Player with biggest impact on outcome of Sugar Bowl?
At the same time, McCarron must prove to all onlookers that he is not simply propped up by the extreme talent around him.
It is simple to slap the "game manager" label on McCarron. He threw for 2,676 yards and 26 scores to five interceptions as a senior but has plenty to prove in his final act.
The Oklahoma defense, which ranks in the top 25 with an average of 21.3 points allowed per game, will surely key on McCarron as the focal point of its plan. Not only does McCarron have to rise above for his own personal reasons, he must do it for his team to win.
Brennan Clay, Running back, Oklahoma
Oklahoma senior running back Brennan Clay is the wild card not receiving much publicity.
Clay had an underwhelming 913 yards and six touchdowns this year, but it is important to understand one thing—when Clay is on, he is on. Check out his three best games this season:
|9/7, West Virginia||22||170||7.7||0|
|11/23, @Kansas State||31||200||6.5||2|
Those are scary numbers and any Alabama fan viewing them would be wise to remember Auburn's Tre Mason torching the Crimson Tide defense for 164 yards and a touchdown in the SEC Championship.
Sure, Alabama ranks No. 2 overall with just 11.3 points allowed per game, but Mason showed the unit can be vulnerable on the ground.
Not only must the Crimson Tide prepare for multiple quarterbacks, the unit also must prep for a back in Clay who can break a game open with apparent ease.