The 2013-14 college football bowl season continues on Thursday evening as the Sugar Bowl takes place between Alabama and Oklahoma in New Orleans.
Here are some things to keep an eye on when you're tuned into the contest between the Crimson Tide and the Sooners.
Alabama (11-1) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)
January 2, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
The Crimson Tide are unable to defend their BCS national championship in the postseason format's final year after they were knocked off by Auburn in the Iron Bowl when Chris Davis Jr. returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown as time expired. However, despite not making the SEC title game, Nick Saban's squad was still able to claim a BCS at-large berth.
Meanwhile, the Sooners claimed a spot in the BCS party by rallying to beat Oklahoma State in the Bedlam Series. Bob Stoops and OU may not be consistently in the BCS title race year in and year out, but the Sooners are seemingly always in the mix when it comes to BCS at-large consideration.
No title game, no problem: Once the Tide fell out of the BCS title game mix, many in the college football world wondered how motivated Saban's squad would be for a game that did not determine the national champion. Don't buy into that theory. The last time Alabama played in this game, Utah dominated a Tide squad that was still reeling from its loss to Florida in the 2008 SEC title game. That won't happen again. Expect a 'Bama team that more resembles the squad that thrashed Michigan State in the 2011 Capital One Bowl despite failing to reach the BCS title game ('Bama beat Texas the previous season for the crystal football). Quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley provide too much veteran leadership to allow this program to receive such a stain that the loss to Utah gave the last time the Tide played in this game.
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The QB shuffle: Who will start at quarterback for the Sooners? Stoops has needed to shuffle in and out three quarterbacks this year (Trevor Knight, Blake Bell and Kendal Thompson), and he has not named a starter for this game. Whoever is on the field will face a 'Bama defense that is No. 2 nationally in scoring defense and No. 5 in total defense. I'm not sure we'll see Thompson, so I would expect some combination of Knight and Bell. Both signal-callers are mobile, but Knight is the one that can get to the edge quickly and could cause the most problems. But Bell's the player who Stoops might use when OU wants to go power vs. power with the Tide defense. And while some of his throws aren't pretty, Bell is the better passer. Alabama is so stout against the run, but it has had difficulty with mobile quarterbacks in the past.
The special teams edge: It's always interesting to see how special teams play out in bowl games because of the long break after the regular season. Making things more interesting in this game is the fact that both teams have electric return men in Christion Jones and Jalen Saunders for the Tide and Sooners, respectively. Alabama has a well-balanced offense, so anything it gets from Jones is gravy. He, of course, had two touchdown returns in the season opener against Virginia Tech to rescue a sputtering Tide offense. Saunders, meanwhile, averages 16.8 yards per punt return (fifth in the FBS). He, of course, had the 64-yard touchdown against Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale.
Odds and ends: Alabama is favored by 16 points ... Oklahoma leads the all-time series 2-1-1 ... Stoops and Saban have two of the top three winning percentages among active college head coaches with at least 10 seasons as the face of a program (Stoops' winning percentage is .803 and Saban's is .745) ... The Sooners are playing in their 15th straight bowl game under Stoops and are making their ninth BCS bowl appearance, which is more than any other program ... While the OU defense has good statistical numbers, it was exposed against Texas and Baylor, especially on the ground. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' unit is on the smaller side up front, and there are depth issues.
Dave Miller, the college football editor and writer for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.
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