Although Alabama won’t be playing for a third consecutive national championship, the Crimson Tide can still go out with a big win as two of college football’s most storied programs face off in New Orleans.

ALLSTATE SUGAR BOWL: No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2) vs. No. 3 Alabama (11-1)

[Thursday, Jan. 2 at 8:30 PM ET on ESPN]

How They Got Here

Alabama was poised to play for its third straight national championship when the unthinkable happened. Auburn’s 109-yard return of a missed field goal sent the Tigers instead of the Crimson Tide into the SEC title game and on to the BCS championship while Alabama fell to the Sugar Bowl as an at-large pick. The Sooners were also an at-large pick after a last-minute upset of then-No. 6 Oklahoma State vaulted Oklahoma to its 11th 10+ win season under coach Bob Stoops.

When Oklahoma Has the Ball

After years of record-setting quarterbacks like Jason White, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones, it seems odd to see Oklahoma ranked 101st nationally in passing offense. Thanks to a combination of inconsistent play and injuries, the Sooners have never really settled on a quarterback, with Trevor Knight and Blake Bell both seeing starts and Kendal Thompson being brought in on a situational basis. Fortunately, an improved running game has brought some stability and given the Sooners a more smashmouth identity this year. Oklahoma ranks 18th nationally in rushing and has averaged over 5.5 yards per carry in its last six games. Alabama ranks 11th nationally in rush defense, but was torched for 296 yards by Auburn. Look for the Sooners to try to duplicate that success on the ground and not put this game on the shoulders of their erratic quarterbacks (as of press time, Bob Stoops had not announced which would get the start). Either way, that will be no easy feat against a Crimson Tide defense that ranks second nationally in scoring defense at just 11.3 points per game.

When Alabama Has the Ball

Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron might not have the most eye-popping stats, but his remarkable consistency and success made him the Heisman runner-up this year. The senior enters his final game after throwing for 2,676 yards, 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions this year. He’ll face an Oklahoma defense that ranks 16th nationally in pass defense but which was torched in November games against Texas Tech and Kansas State (388 and 348 yards, respectively). But the bigger concern for the Sooners might be a sophomore running back T.J. Yeldon and a powerful Alabama rushing attack that averages nearly six yards per carry. Oklahoma’s defense has been up-and-down against the run, holding five opponents this year to less than 100 yards but giving up 200+ to four others. With McCarron under center, Alabama is 42-1 when rushing for 125 or more yards compared to just 4-5 when it does not.

What to Know

These are two of college football’s most legendary programs, claiming 22 national titles and six Heisman winners between them. Alabama was last in the Sugar Bowl two years ago when it defeated LSU for the national championship. This is Oklahoma’s first trip to New Orleans since losing to LSU in the 2004 BCS Championship Game. This is just the fifth meeting between the two schools, with OU holding a 2-1-1 edge.

What to Watch For

With both teams relying so heavily on the run, this game will likely be decided by who controls the line of scrimmage and who makes fewer mistakes in the passing game. With McCarron under center, Alabama certainly has an edge in that department. While there is little debate that Alabama is the more talented team, it will be interesting to see the attitude with which the Crimson Tide plays. After the heartbreaking end to the regular season and the endless “Nick Saban to Texas” rumors, what is the Crimson Tide’s mindset going into this one? If Alabama tries to just go through the motions, the Sooners have enough talent on defense and in the running game to pull off the upset. But if Alabama plays with a chip on its shoulder to prove that it is still the best team in college football, the Crimson Tide could win big.

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