SB Nation

Bill Connelly | January 2, 2014

The big 2014 Sugar Bowl breakdown

Oklahoma vs. Alabama

[Game recap here: "Big Game Bob" and the Sooners pulled off the Sugar Bowl shocker!]

The "Big Game Bob" moniker for Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops has lived a long life and served a couple of different purposes.

At times, it has been a statement of ultimate respect. Between bowls and Big 12 title games and Red River rivalry games, Stoops' Sooners have really had some nice runs through the years. He won five straight games versus Texas from 2000 to '04. He won seven of eight Big 12 title games. And he won his first BCS title game as well, a 13-2 win over a Florida State team favored by 10 points in 2000.

But over time, "Big Game Bob" has been a phrase of slight derision. In 2003, OU was not only upset but pummeled, 35-7, by Kansas State in the Big 12 title game, then lost to LSU in the BCS National Championship as well. The next year, the Sooners were destroyed by USC in the title game. In 2008, OU fell again in the title, this time to Florida. Stoops ceded control of the Red River Rivalry to Texas for a while, losing four of five from 2005 to '09.

We focus on the big games, but under Stoops, Oklahoma has been one of the steadiest winners in the country. Starting with his second season in 2000, the Sooners have won at least 10 games in 12 of 14 years. That's incredible. They've finished ranked in the AP top 25 in 13 of those 14 seasons and finished in the top 10 eight times. And again, they've won seven conference titles in what has been, on average, the second-best league in college football.

And despite turnover and injuries on both sides of the ball and a relatively significant change in overall identity, Oklahoma's upset of Oklahoma State in Stillwater on December 7 gave the Sooners a 10-2 record yet again and allowed them to sneak into a BCS at-large bid through the back door.

If you're looking for a crack, though, simply consider this: Oklahoma really did have to upset Oklahoma State. The Sooners rank outside the F/+ top 15 for the first time since 2005 (they're currently 23rd).

And for the third time this season, they are double-digit underdogs. Alabama is favored to win the Sugar Bowl by just north of two touchdowns. In Stoops' first 14 seasons in charge in Norman, OU was a double-digit underdog just twice.

If you're looking for hope for an upset, you could point out that OU is 2-2 as a double-digit dog in Stoops' time; the Sooners did beat FSU in 2000, and they did beat OSU a month ago. Granted, the other two times as big underdogs -- 2013 against Baylor (a 41-12 loss) and 2005 against Texas (45-12) -- turned out terribly, and the odds are pretty good that the Sugar Bowl will finish in a similar way. But it's not a given, at least not yet. "Big Game Bob" might still have a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

He better, anyway. Because otherwise this could get ugly.

How they got here

OU's season to date

How did OU get here? I ... I don't know.

The Sooners reinvented their offense around mobile quarterbacks and shuffled through a multitude of them because of injury and a bit of ineffectiveness. They crafted a pretty decent power-running offense but didn't really seem to like running the ball. They fashioned an attacking, fast defense -- sort of 3-3-5, sort of 3-4, sort of other -- that handled Big 12 spread offenses relatively well but didn't do much against the run. They won at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State by a combined 23 points but beat West Virginia, TCU, and Texas Tech by a combined 20 points at home.

Oklahoma in no way a bad team; the Sooners rank in the top 30 in both Off. and Def. F/+, and their special teams unit is somewhere between competent and good. But they also haven't been particularly good at anything in 2013. But thanks to the upset of OSU and the name on the helmet, here they are in a BCS bowl.

Bama's season to date

Alabama lost a game in each of its past two title seasons. But the Crimson Tide waited too long to do it in 2013; their crazy, once-in-a-lifetime loss to Auburn not only kept them out of the SEC title game (an impediment they overcame in 2011), but it also bumped them just far enough down the pecking order that they came up short of a third BCS title game appearance in three years (and a fourth in five).

It would be a shame to boil Alabama's season down to a single game, but that's where we are with Alabama at the moment. "Did they make the BCS title game: Yes/No." They did not this year for the first time since 2010, the last time Auburn did. This season will go down as disappointing for that reason, but with a win, Bama would move to 73-8 since the start of the 2008 season. And if the Tide's last non-title bowl appearance is any indication, they'll be ready to seize Win No. 73.

(By the way, this is neither here nor there, but Alabama has been ranked No. 1 in part of each of the last six seasons. The best Bear Bryant did was five of six years from 1961 to '66. Just throwing that out there.)

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Oklahoma 10-2 11 23 30 27 36
Alabama 11-1 3 2 -15.5 12 5 1
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
OU Offense 36 49 24 49 41 61 32
Bama Defense 7 4 3 12 19 11 1
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
OU Offense 26 29 76 63 26 31 25
Bama Defense 5 16 63 73 102 97 103
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Bama Offense 10 11 9 14 13 4 37
OU Defense 53 16 77 18 10 45 39
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Bama Offense 6 6 20 12 12 39 7
OU Defense 69 31 91 101 12 78 25
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
OU Special Teams 35 16 112 97 6 44
Bama Special Teams 1 97 3 2 9 4

OU's biggest advantages

The Sooners force three-and-outs. The most frustrating part about playing Alabama -- and there are plenty of frustrating parts -- has to be the way the Tide tilt the field in their favor. Congratulations, you made a stop! Now here's the ball at your 15-yard line.

Unless you're planning on significantly outgaining the Tide (probably not going to happen) or relying on them to miss four field goals again (as they did against Auburn), you probably aren't going to beat Alabama unless you at least fight to a draw in the field position battle.

Generally speaking, the field position battle comes down to three things: special teams, three-and-outs, and turnovers. OU's return game (Jalen Saunders on punts, Roy Finch on kickoffs) will give Oklahoma a shot at splitting on the former, and the Sooners will quite plainly need some luck in the latter (they have forced only five fumbles all year, and needless to say, OU's trio of quarterbacks is more of an INT danger than Alabama's AJ McCarron is). But if they can force some Bama three-and-outs and give Saunders a chance to return the ball into or near Alabama territory, they will have done themselves a huge favor. They were pretty good at it during the regular season.

Bama was also good at avoiding them, but that's another story.

Oklahoma will keep Alabama out of the backfield. We know how Alabama's defense operates by now. Working from the 3-4, the Tide occupy your blockers and wait for you to make your move.

They are not inordinately aggressive, nor do they need to be. They are good enough at suffocating you that they don't mind giving your quarterback extra time to figure out where he's going with the ball, but if nothing else that means that OU's quarterback of choice -- either Trevor Knight, Blake Bell, or Kendal Thompson (but probably not Thompson) -- will indeed have time to make reads and decisions.

And it will allow for running back Brennan Clay to at least move forward a bit and help OU stay out of passing downs. The fewer the better in that regard.

The unknown. Under Stoops, Oklahoma has pulled off a couple of big upsets as double-digit dogs. And while one of those was a solid 13 years ago, it still counts. The odds are good that Stoops will have his team ready to play its A-game (or at least a decent B-game), and there's a good chance he'll have some tricks up his sleeve. Again, he better.

For all we know, OU will come out with three starting quarterbacks, working from the split-T and unleashing run-pass option after run-pass option. (This probably won't happen, but let me dream.) The Sooners will have trick plays dialed up, and some of them might work. Everybody involved here knows how good Alabama is, and Stoops and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel have to know that their offense isn't good enough to roll up 400 yards of offense without some creativity.

Again, this isn't an awful offense. It has had its identity issues at times -- really wanting to pass despite personnel that is much better at running -- but Clay has come a long way at running back, Saunders and Sterling Shepard are quick, efficient route runners, and despite his struggles, Bell is still completing 60 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns to two interceptions. Things could be worse.

Still, Alabama has the size and speed advantage. OU's going to have to come up with some ideas.

Bama's biggest advantages

Oklahoma can't stop the run. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops had to come to a tough realization last season. His defensive line stunk, and it wasn't going to suddenly improve in a single offseason. So he doubled down on speed.

OU shows a lot of looks from a three-man line and takes full advantage of the cover skills of a young, interesting set of cornerbacks. The pass rush has improved just enough, and OU has defensed a rock-solid 58 passes in 2013. Stoops built a defense capable of slowing down most Big 12 offenses -- even Baylor, at full strength, struggled mightily for a quarter and a half before starting to figure things out.

The main problem: Alabama's is not a Big 12 spread offense.

In the Big 12, Alabama's offense is most similar in style to what Texas attempted against the Sooners: brutality up front, followed by play action. How did that work for Texas against this OU defense? Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown carried 52 times for 243 yards, and Case McCoy completed 13 passes for 190 yards, including a 59-yard bomb to Marcus Johnson.

Texas, by the way, ranked 46th in Off. F/+ and 65th in Rushing S&P+. Alabama ranks 12th and ninth, respectively. And Alabama's play-action weapons are better and more reliable than Marcus Johnson, who for the season caught 22 passes for 350 yards.

This isn't the Alabama attack of 2012, with an untouchable line blocking for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. But the line's still quite good, and Yeldon's still there. McCarron can still throw the prettiest play-action deep ball you've seen, and it appears Amari Cooper is now healthy and ready to catch them. (Just ask Auburn.)

If Texas is capable of going for 445 yards (5.4 per play) and 36 points against Oklahoma, Alabama can go for 500 (if it runs enough plays, anyway) and 45. Can Oklahoma keep up?

Alabama eats methodical offenses alive. Perhaps even more jarring than OU actually using a mobile quarterback for the first time since Jason White had healthy knees (more than a decade ago) is the fact that the Sooners have so few big-play options.

Sure, players have had their moments. Clay has a 76-yard run on the record, and Saunders has a 76-yard reception. Two other Sooners have caught 50-yard passes, and two five other Sooners have 30-yard runs. But Oklahoma is smack in the middle of the pack in Explosive Drives (61st), and if you don't score quickly against Alabama, you probably don't score.

Alabama allowed just 16 touchdown drives in 12 games in 2013 -- 10 against Texas A&M and Auburn and six against everybody else. (That's just incredible, by the way. Also incredible? All of them traveled at least 46 yards; the Tide simply don't give you short fields.) Of these 16 drives, only four lasted more than nine plays, and five of them lasted five or fewer. Five didn't even involve a red zone play. Go big or … don't go.

Seriously, OU can't stop the run. I'm not sure anything else matters. Prove me wrong, Sooners.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

As is always the case, this game represents the end of the road for a load of Bama seniors and Draft-eligible juniors. This will be the final game for McCarron, guard Anthony Steen, receivers Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, Mosley, end Ed Stinson, corner Deion Belue, and others; plus, juniors Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Cyrus Kouandjio are projected first-rounders. This is a lot of turnover ... but it's kind of run-of-the-mill for the football factory in Tuscaloosa.

No matter who next year's starting quarterback is, and no matter what happens in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama is beginning next year in the top five.

For Oklahoma, however, this game represents one hell of an opportunity. There are few seniors of consequence -- Saunders, Clay, corner Aaron Colvin, safety Gabe Lynn, center Gabe Ikard, and that's about it. This is a young team that was trying to figure out a new identity in 2013, and if the Sooners show well against Alabama, that might give a lot of voters fuel for once again making them a top-10 team next fall. (They'll be a top-25 team regardless.)

OU has a lot of questions to answer and could still be pretty good if it gets blown out in New Orleans, but a good performance could cause us to overreact a bit.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Alabama 33, Oklahoma 15.
Win Probability: Alabama 88%

This is one hell of a helmet game. These storied programs have met only four times -- twice in bowls (1963 Alabama, 1970 Bluebonnet) and twice in a lackluster home-and-home in 2002-2003, when Alabama very much did not have its act together -- so the simple fact that these programs will clash in one of college football's most celebrated venues should warrant attention.

But it's up to Oklahoma whether you pay attention past halftime. This is perhaps the worst Sooner team in eight years -- yes, worse than the 2009 team that went 8-5 (but lost four games by 12 combined points) -- and Bob Stoops' squad has an opportunity to either start the rebound toward 2014 immediately or prove that it is indeed unworthy of a big-time bowl matchup. The nation will be watching either way, and it's up to "Big Game Bob" to provide the meaning behind the moniker.

But seriously, Sooners. Come out in the three-QB split-T. I'll be your best friend.

About the Author

Bill-sbn

Bill Connelly grew up a fan of the Miami Dolphins (post-1970s glory), Pittsburgh Pirates (ditto), Portland Trailblazers (ditto again) and Missouri Tigers. That he still enjoys sports at all shows both severe loyalty and a potential personality disorder. He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic. See more of his work at Rock M Nation, Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.

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