Although the national championship won't be on the line when Oklahoma and Alabama meet in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, there is no question that college football fans will have their eyes glued to the television as two of the most storied programs in college football history attempt to end the season on a positive note.
The Sooners and Crimson Tide took very different routes to get to this point, as Oklahoma defeated rival Oklahoma State to position itself for a BCS berth, while Alabama suffered an agonizing defeat against rival Auburn, which prevented it from competing for the national title.
With so many intriguing factors at play, here is a closer look at the biggest storylines to keep tabs on while watching the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
A.J. McCarron's Final Collegiate Game
Although Alabama's defense and head coach Nick Saban have received much of the credit for the Tide's success over the past few seasons, quarterback A.J. McCarron has unquestionably been a big part of it as well. McCarron hasn't put up gaudy statistics like some of his counterparts, as he has submitted himself to a team-focused game over personal production.
With that said, though, the Sugar Bowl will be McCarron's final official collegiate game, which means plenty of NFL scouts will be on hand for McCarron to impress.
McCarron's winning mentality has been enough to garner him praise while with Alabama, but it won't mean much at the NFL level. Becoming a top NFL prospect has everything to do with having great tools, and while McCarron may not be elite in that regard, he's likely better than he has had the opportunity to showcase. One person who fully realizes that is Oklahoma safety Gabe Lynn, according to Mike Herndon of AL.com.
"He's like a coach on the field," Lynn said. "He's a sharp guy, doesn't make a lot of mistakes and then his arm is great too. He puts the ball in a lot of places where only the receiver can get the ball. He's real good at that."
McCarron's decision-making has been great as Alabama's starter, as evidenced by the fact that he has completed 67 percent of his passes and thrown no more than five interceptions in a single season over the past three years. He'll need to be more than a game manager to succeed at the next level, though. If Saban loosens the reins and allows McCarron to air it out a bit against the Sooners, it could potentially be huge for McCarron's stock.
Handicapping Oklahoma's QB Situation
While Oklahoma has had better seasons during head coach Bob Stoops' tenure, it can certainly be argued that his most impressive work has been done in 2013. The Sooners managed to finish the season with a 10-2 record despite the fact that a surefire starter never materialized at the quarterback position. Stoops waffled between Blake Bell and Trevor Knight all season long, and that remains true ahead of the Sugar Bowl, according to Eric Bailey of the Tulsa World.
Using two quarterbacks is something that can be effective to a certain extent at the collegiate level, but it is unquestionably always better to have a defined starter. As much as it can keep opponents off balance, switching between signal-callers can also prevent the offense from settling into a rhythm. Luckily for Oklahoma, though, the running game has been effective with Brennan Clay, Damien Williams, Knight and Bell all contributing, while the defense has been stout as well.
Even so, all eyes will be on the quarterback position in the Sugar Bowl. Bell is likely the favorite since he is a junior while Knight is a freshman. It isn't easy for anyone to contend with Alabama's defense, but Bell might be able to contend with it a bit better. Also, Bell is big and physical at 6'6" and 252 pounds, so he can handle the physical punishment that the Tide will look to dish out.
Stoops is trying to give his team the advantage by concealing the identity of the starting quarterback leading up to the Sugar Bowl, but it remains to be seen if either of them will play well enough to upset 'Bama.
Will Nick Saban's Team Be Motivated?
There is no question that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't believe that Alabama has the advantage over Oklahoma in terms of overall talent. The Tide looked like a national title team all season long, and while the Sooners had a great year in their own right, they were never quite at that level. With that said, there are several factors that need to be taken into account prior to the Sugar Bowl. Among them is the varying feeling of motivation that each team figures to have.
What is the biggest storyline to watch in the Sugar Bowl?
One has to assume that Oklahoma will be fired up and ready to go in this game because of the quality of its opponent. Alabama, on the other hand, may struggle to get excited. The Sugar Bowl is a game that many teams would love to be a part of, but the Tide's mentality entering the season was essentially national title or bust. Even Saban admitted that the team is still dwelling on the loss to Auburn to a certain degree, according to Michael Casagrande of AL.com.
"We're all a little disappointed with the way the season ended," Saban said.
Based upon how close Alabama came to playing for another championship, it's important for the players to not be disappointed. If that manifests itself against Oklahoma, though, the Tide will be ripe for an upset. It happened back in 2009 when Alabama was shocked by Utah in the Sugar Bowl, and it could very well happen again. Saban is the best coach in college football, so he should have ability to rally the troops, but there certainly aren't any guarantees.
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