This year's Sugar Bowl is a battle of two traditional football powerhouses, Alabama and Oklahoma, but smaller battles across the field will determine this contest.
While Alabama will be motivated after failing to reach the BCS National Championship, it has proved to be more vulnerable on defense than we've seen in years past. Of course, Oklahoma has played with two quarterbacks rotating throughout the season, so it brings its own questions into this game.
So, which players must step up for each team? Which players have the ability to make a difference? Let's find out.
Blake Bell and Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma
The pair have shared quarterback duties for much of the season, with Blake Bell being the better passer (1,648 yards, 12 touchdowns, five interceptions) and Trevor Knight the more dangerous runner (438 rushing yards, 7.1 yards per carry, two touchdowns).
With Nick Marshall and Auburn having so much success against Alabama utilizing the read-option, Oklahoma could mimic that game plan and utilize Knight in a similar fashion. While he isn't as dangerous as Marshall, Knight's ability to run the ball could give Alabama fits.
If nothing else, Oklahoma's ability to run either the read-option with Knight or a spread attack with Bell should give Alabama trouble as it attempts to devise a defensive game plan. So long as each player produces in his role and protects the ball, Oklahoma should be able to find a way to attack this tough 'Bama defense.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
Oklahoma has been quite good against the pass this year, allowing just 198 passing yards per game (15th in the nation) and 15 touchdowns through the air while picking off 14 passes. So AJ McCarron and the passing game might find themselves stymied a bit in this game.
That means talented runner T.J. Yeldon will have to step up for the Crimson Tide. He's been excellent again this season, rushing for 1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns. If he and the 'Bama offensive line can control the line of scrimmage and wear down Oklahoma's front seven, it will be a very long 60 minutes for the Sooners.
Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma
Let's be honest—few teams can just line up across from Alabama and hit them in the mouth. Instead, to beat a powerhouse like the Crimson Tide, you need to win other battles: protect the ball and force turnovers, fool them with your offensive game plan, get a special teams touchdown, generate chunk plays.
The latter two are where Jalen Saunders comes into play. The diminutive wideout is a dangerous pass-catcher, sure, but he's also Oklahoma's big-play threat. And Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix knows that the Crimson Tide will have to keep a keen eye on Saunders' every move, as reported by Trey Iles of NOLA.com:
“We have to keep an eye on him at all times,’’ said Clinton-Dix, whose team will face the Sooners in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday. “I think he’s the best weapon if you ask me. He’s a small guy but that guy is amazing. He’s fast. He can get open and runs great routes. So we have to keep our eyes on that guy.’’
Oklahoma State would agree.
Saunders scored two touchdowns in the Sooners’ 33-24 victory, including catching a 7-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left that gave Oklahoma a 27-24 lead.
He has 56 receptions this year for 654 yards and six touchdowns. But his pass catching ability is only half the story. Saunders is a dangerous punt returner. He averages 16.8 yards per attempt, sixth best in the nation, and has scored twice.
If Saunders can hit on a few big plays against Alabama, it will go a long way for an Oklahoma team that will find itself facing a more talented overall team, at least on paper. Saunders might also keep the Crimson Tide from playing too aggressively on defense, as they might fear he'll beat them on a big play.
Oklahoma will need a few things to go their way if they are to beat Alabama. But a huge game from Saunders would certainly tip the scales closer to their favor.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
For the second straight year, C. J. Mosley was named an Associated Press first-team All American. He also won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. It's no wonder, as he not only finished the year with 102 tackles, nine tackles for loss and five defensed passes, but he's also received comparisons to Ray Lewis.
Yes, Ray Lewis. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jay Norvell compared the two, according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com:
He's similar in his ability to communicate, his sense, his football senses, the way he sees the field, gets everybody lined up. He's a really good football player and as good a linebacker as we've seen this year, and we've gotta do a great job of understanding where he's at and making sure we block him.
When we played Ray Lewis when I was in National Football League, I was just amazed where he always seemed to be in the right position all the time. That's the way Mosley is.
High praise, indeed, and praise Mosley will have to live up to, as Oklahoma will surely look to establish the running game early. If the Sooners turn to Knight to run the read-option, you can bet Mosley will be tested.
How he answers that test will be a major factor in this game. Given that he generally wins his battles, however, don't expect Oklahoma to get the best of the nation's top linebacker.
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