Sugar Bowl 2014: Key Storylines for Alabama vs. Oklahoma

Alex Espinoza@AlexEspinozaIVCorrespondent IIIDecember 31, 2013

Nov 30, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron (10) and head coach Nick Saban run during warm ups prior to the game against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Two of college football's most storied programs will clash on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in New Orleans when the No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1) face the No. 11 Oklahoma Sooners (10-2) in the 2014 Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Coaches Nick Saban and Bob Stoops also have some high-profile history against each other, as Saban's LSU team beat Stoops' Oklahoma squad in 2004 in New Orleans for the national title. So, what does Thursday's big BCS showdown have in store?

Here's a look at three of the top storylines heading into the contest.

Alabama Trying to Rebound against Upstart Oklahoma

These two teams enter the Sugar Bowl on opposite ending notes to the regular season.

Alabama had bigger aspirations of a national championship until their heartbreaking 34-28 loss to the Auburn Tigers in an all-time classic Iron Bowl. Oklahoma, meanwhile, defeated Oklahoma State 33-24 in an entertaining Bedlam rivalry game, but it still enters this tilt as a massive underdog.

As of Monday afternoon, VegasInsider.com pegged Alabama as a 16-point favorite, giving the Sugar Bowl one of the biggest spreads of any bowl game this winter.

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Cliff Kirkpatrick of USA Today recently spoke to Alabama head coach Nick Saban and some of his players about how they're approaching this contest after the Iron Bowl disappointment:

"I think for all of us, it's sort of a respect thing," tight end Brian Vogler said of the Sugar Bowl. "We want to go out and prove to people that we're one of the best teams in the country. ... We may not be in the national championship, but we are in a BCS game, and we have a (chance) to show people our abilities."

While Oklahoma certainly faces an uphill battle against one of the nation's most complete teams, the Sooners were underdogs heading into Bedlam against OSU but rose to the occasion to pull off a victory. It's been a while since either of these teams have played a game, but it will be interesting to see if there are any lingering affects of the regular-season finales.

Sooners Riding Strength of Running Game

NORMAN, OK - NOVEMBER 16: Quarterback Trevor Knight #9 of the Oklahoma Sooners scores a touchdown in front of linebacker Jeremiah George #52 of the Iowa State Cyclones November 16, 2013 at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. Okla
Brett Deering/Getty Images

If there's one area where Oklahoma can feel confident heading into the Sugar Bowl, it's the rushing attack.

The Sooners ranked 18th nationally, averaging 235.8 yards per game, behind bell cow Brennan Clay (913 yards, five TDs). Oklahoma's attack took a big hit in November when second-leading rusher Damien Williams was dismissed from the team, but the Sooners still have some big threats on the ground.

Perhaps, the one that will be most effective for the Sooners will be quarterback Trevor Knight, who averaged 84 rushing yards on 13.3 attempts in the final three games of the season while splitting snaps with fellow QB Blake Bell.

Alabama has been exposed by dual-threat quarterbacks this season, as Johnny Manziel accounted for 464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing in a 49-42 win against Texas A&M and Auburn's Nick Marshall ran for 99 more against the Crimson tide in the Iron Bowl.

Clay recently compared Knight to both Manziel and Marshall, per Mike Herndon of AL.com:

With such a mismatch on paper, the Sooners will likely have to get creative in the running game to grind out a victory. Leading receivers Jalen Saunders (56 catches, 654 yards, six TDs) and Sterling Shepard (44 receptions, 540 yards, six TDs) are quality options on the outside, but they shouldn't be counted on to expose Alabama's pass defense, which ranked fourth nationally (166.3 yards allowed per game).

Alabama is also stiff against the run (11th, 108.3 yards allowed per game), but Oklahoma needs to try and attack the Crimson Tide's front seven on Thursday.

How Will AJ McCarron's Career End?

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron missed out on a chance to lead the Crimson Tide to their third straight national championship this year, but he still has a chance to wrap up his impressive college football career with another BCS victory.

Entering play Thursday, McCarron already holds school records in wins (36), passing yards (8,632) and passing touchdowns (75), while cementing himself as one of college football's most effective players. This year, he passed for 2,676 yards with a 67.6 completion percentage, 26 touchdowns and five interceptions. It's the efficiency and smart decisions with the football that have enabled McCarron to have such success, as he threw three picks in September and two in a 20-7 win over Mississippi State but has been otherwise spotless.

Aside from his college football legacy, McCarron is also trying to prove that he can translate his skills to the next level, with Alex Marvez of FOX Sports reporting he has an outstanding invite to play in the Senior Bowl:

He might not have the gravitas of Tim Tebow or other past Heisman winners, but McCarron has carved out a nice SEC legacy of his own. The senior doesn't have much to prove at this point, but a win against a talented Oklahoma defense that ranked 22nd in points allowed per game (21.3) would be great for his NFL resume as he prepares for April's draft.

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