Although the new year has already begun, let’s have one more rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”
It’s for the 80th Sugar Bowl, the final one of the BCS era before the brave new world known as the College Football Playoff arrives next season.
It’s fitting that this edition Thursday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome features the bowl’s most frequent participant and its most frequent visitor from outside the Southeastern Conference. No. 3 Alabama will make its 14th appearance, and No. 11 Oklahoma of the Big 12 is here for the seventh time.
The game also features two of the most successful coaches of the BCS era: the Crimson Tide’s Nick Saban and the Sooners’ Bob Stoops. Saban is making his fifth postseason appearance in the Sugar Bowl, the site of two of his three BCS championships. Stoops is back at the site of one of his four BCS title game appearances.
There are no national title implications, but Alabama can finish 12-1 on the heels of consecutive BCS titles. OU can finish 11-2 and remind everyone that it’s still an elite program.
“It’s a great opportunity to put two of the best programs in the country together and two of the best coaches,” OU offensive lineman Gabe Ikard said. “But when it comes down to it, it’s between the players.”
Alabama was ranked No. 1 and on course to play for what would have been a record third straight BCS title before an improbable field goal return for a touchdown by Auburn with no time on the clock made overtime unnecessary in a 34-28 win Nov. 30, sending the Tigers to the SEC title game.
“In my eyes, they’re still the best team in the country,” Stoops said. “They’ve been the best team in the country for three years up to the very last play of the regular season. They’re as good a football team as we’ve played in my 15 years here.”
Bama players have talked this week about demonstrating they’re still the team they were before that Auburn ending.
“If we come out there and dominate in this game,” receiver Amari Cooper said, “we can still be looked at as the best team in the country.”
The challenge is acting like the best team in the country while knowing they can’t be crowned BCS champions.
“I think the most important thing about a bowl game is mindset,” Saban said. “I’ve been pleased with the way our team has responded, and we’re going to do everything we can to have our team well-prepared mentally and physically to go out and play their best football. But until we go play, nobody really knows for sure.”
Quarterback AJ McCarron, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, leads the Tide’s balanced offense, which features one of the most physical running games in the country.
“This will be the most physical game that we have played all year,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “If you can’t stop the run, you can’t win. That’s just how this game is set up.”
The Sooners are set up to defend the speed-oriented spread offenses of the Big 12, so they’ll face a different kind of challenge Thursday.
“They’re not quite as big as some defenses in the SEC,” McCarron said, “but they have speed, which makes them really good on defense.”
The Bama defense, which has set the standard in college football for most of Saban’s seven-year tenure, is trying to re-establish itself after allowing 296 rushing yards against Auburn.
Bob Stoops hasn’t revealed how he will use his two quarterbacks: Blake Bell, who is primarily a pocket passer, and Trevor Knight, who is more of a read-option runner.
“I don’t think there is a whole lot of difference in what they do,” Saban said, “but I think their skill sets are different in terms of one guy being a big, physical runner and the other not as big, but very athletic.”
In contrast to the Tide, the Sooners are coming off a 33-24 upset victory at archrival Oklahoma State on Dec. 7. But which team has best bought into its motivating factors won’t be known until after kickoff.
“It’s a chance to win 12 games,” McCarron said. “Not a lot of teams in Alabama history can say that; not a lot of teams in the country can say that. We slipped up one time. That’s football. You’ve got to let it go.”
A Sooners win would give them victories in all four BCS bowls, as well as the 2001 title game.
“To win 10 games is special, to go to a BCS game is special, but you always want to end the year with a win, especially against a great team like Alabama,” Ikard said. “Obviously, they’re a great team — still probably the best in the country except for one crazy play. So we’re very excited for the opportunity to see how talented they are and the success they’ve had in the last five years.
“We have a lot to prove in this game.”