The Clash of the Titans. SEC defense versus Big 12 offense. Saban versus Stoops. "Boomer Sooner" versus "Roll Tide." Crimson and White versus Crimson and Cream. If ever a "consolation prize" could be so alluring, such would be the case in the Sugar Bowl match-up between Alabama and Oklahoma.
Let it be known: this is not the finale Alabama had intended for this season, the legendary and historic senior campaign of beloved Bama greats AJ McCarron and CJ Mosley, among others. Though what they've accomplished has exceeded the expectations of even the most sunshine-pumping advocates of their recruiting class, still, if we're being honest, this movie's ending is...well...a little bit of a letdown. It wasn't supposed to be like this, with Bama playing anywhere else but the final BCSNCG, a venue the Tide has come to dominate and claim as its own turf in three of the last four years.
"You can't win them all," it's been said. "You have to lose some time." And as time has passed, for some at least, the pain of that fateful November Saturday has begun to erode to a granular level like the sands of memory. For others, it is still a burning-hot stab in the eye, a garish, flame-orange poker that denotes the cars and apparel of the triumphant enemy. It is a fate that fans of the Crimson Tide must endure for this long, cold winter.
But all hope is not lost. No, in college football, hope springs eternal. The reset button is about to be pressed, and no one knows exactly what will come as a result. If Saban's past record following a heart-breaking loss is to be trusted, make no mistake, the next Crimson Tide team will be a resolute, motivated machine with the mindset to once again go forth and conquer. This particular Crimson Tide team that will face Oklahoma is a team in transition still holding the cards of leaders past while embracing the talent of tomorrow. The Tide will have to pick itself up off the canvas in short order, as the foe that awaits is not one with which to trifle.
Bama fans will remember the last time the Tide faced off against Oklahoma, in the 2002-2003 home-and-home series. In both games, an Oklahoma team reaching its pinnacle under Bob Stoops beat the Tide, despite the best efforts of an undermanned Bama team. "Big Game Bob" even had to pull out the trickeration to defeat Bama in 2002. Otherwise, if not for those losses, the outcome of a previous coaching regime, and thusly the current trajectory of the Bama football program, could have changed forever.
But in the here and now, these two legendary winners will face off in a legendary bowl game in a legendary city. And if one indeed cannot win them all, then a Sugar Bowl berth against a team like the Sooners is about as good a consolation prize as one could want.
This game is not all about the artificial construct of tradition, however, as the game of American rules tackle football will still be played despite the illustrious histories of the two schools involved. Big questions will remain to be answered, though for a team hungry for destiny, anything less than legend can leave one a little unsatisfied.
Bama's senior class has built the program to new heights under Our Dark Lord's firm handed leadership. They have become legend, a team that benefitted from the quirks of fate as much as their own hard work and discipline. They have been the rigid spine of the team that has claimed the last two BCSNC's, and the legacy they leave behind will be untarnished.
This Sugar Bowl will be a bittersweet moment, as old warriors like McCarron, Norwood, Steen, and Mosley hang up their crimson armor forever. It will also serve as a concrete reminder of what becomes of the complacent, of those who tempt Fate one time too many with less than 100 percent effort and focus. Never again will we see some of these young men representing the school, the state, and well, us, on the field of collegiate play. They, of course, are graduating to the next chapter of their lives, but as is often the case, such departures often come with an inkling of a heavy heart at the days that have passed and can never be again.
We take refuge in the knowledge that the leaders of tomorrow's Crimson Tide are sharpening their blades and polishing their greaves, preparing to step up into the ranks vacated by their senior brothers-in-arms. The faces will be different, but with ODL remaining at the helm (Texas, be damned!), the expected result will be very similar.
In the meantime, let us not look with downward glances on the destiny that withered on the vine this last November. Let us remember these young men and the fond memories their exploits have provided for fathers and their sons, daughters and their mothers. Good times enjoyed remain eternal, a lamp to light even the darkest hours that are surely to come. As we watch these men compete in crimson one last time, let's not tarry in sorrow at their passing, but commemorate where they started, and just how far they've come. To that sentiment, I expect only a hearty, "Roll Tide."
Now, on to the Sugar Bowl and how the teams will match-up...
- Mental state will be of early importance in this game, as the two teams had very different endings to their respective seasons, in both tone and practice. Alabama lost out on a chance at three consecutive national championships, falling to an arch rival in the most hari-kari-inducing circumstance ever recorded on live television. Oklahoma, on the other hand, upset their greatest rival outside of Texas by beating Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game. One would expect the moods to be vastly different into these two locker rooms, but at least publicly, the Tide has risen to the occasion. Beat reporters have described the Bama players as "loose" as they can remember, and the last time that term was thrown around immediately preceded the destruction of LSU in the 2011 BCSNCG, and in the Tide's January 2011 demolition of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Woe be it to the team that must face off against a "loose" Alabama squad, as often, it is the first strike of the death knell for a team about to be obliterated. Take into account that the graduating Bama seniors have been winners throughout their career. Loss has become such a rare concept that the sting can motivate them to greater heights. This will not be the '08 Sugar Bowl, as this team's leaders have too much pride to leave anything on the field this Thursday. Expect a laser-honed Crimson Tide juggernaut to take the field against the Sooners. If Oklahoma can handle the Tide under these circumstances, then they will deserve the respect they will have earned. But I fear for the Sooners that the outcome will be quite different, and that Sooner seniors will leave the field with a full understanding of the current power of SEC football.
- The last time the two teams met was 2003, and the roles of the two powers have flipped in the decade since. At the time of the previous meeting, Oklahoma was a perennial title contender, with Bama a ghost of its former self, still feasting on the flanks of tradition and championships past. No more is that the case. Oklahoma may still be contender in some sense of the word, yes, but they are not expected to be at the table when the National Championship pie is sliced these days. Alabama, now, is the powerhouse to which all other teams aspire. Despite dramatic differences in style of play, the strength of Oklahoma's current team is its defense, with a defensive backfield that may even make ODL himself a little jealous. Future pro Aaron Colvin, would start for many SEC teams, and the Sooner linebackers are in a class of their own in the Big 12. This will be the key match-up in the game, namely, whether or not AJ McCarron and his group of receivers will be able to take advantage of the passing game against the most finely honed component of a strong Oklahoma defense. As we've seen this year, Bama has relied on the pass to open up the run to a greater extent than in the past. In previous years, the opposite statement would likely hold sway. Oklahoma's run defense is not great, middle of the pack at best, so Alabama will undoubtedly be able to make some hay in the running game with T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry. However, to do so, they are going to need the passing game to execute consistently to keep the Sooners from jamming the running lanes. In this game, one of Bama's keys will be to utilize tight end O.J. Howard to create mismatches in the passing game, forcing the Oklahoma secondary to adjust and creating discomfort for their talented players. Most likely, Colvin will be glued to a healthy Amari Cooper, so it will be incumbent upon Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and others to create space and be sure-handed. If McCarron finds a rhythm and the passing game clicks, there's not much Oklahoma will be able to do to keep Bama from running up and down the field.
- The Oklahoma offense, to quote Bama legend Forrest Gump, is like a box of chocolates...specifically at quarterback. Even when the personnel have been consistent, the level of play has not. Oklahoma is not the pass-first team of previous incarnations. The preference these days is the running game, and whether it's from the tailback position or the quarterback position, the Bama defense can expect a steady diet of the Sooner rushing attack. Granted, Oklahoma is not an SEC team, but they run the ball extremely well behind a solid line. There will be no margin for error on defense, as depending on which Sooner team shows up in the Super Dome, even a momentary lapse could lead to an early Oklahoma lead. If the Sooners get an early lead, they the defense and ball-control style of offense that could give Bama trouble. One can realistically expect Alabama to get steady performances in this game, as the Bama defense matches up well with what Oklahoma brings to the table. Expect to also get a glimpse of what the Tide defense will look like in 2014, as some new faces will most certainly make an appearance while making moves for playing time in the new season.
Despite the letdown of playing in the Big Easy instead of Pasadena this year, this game could prove to be another turning point for future Bama squads. Remember the way that victory over Michigan State propelled Bama to a historic run of championships? This can be that sort of game for the future of Crimson Tide football. New leaders are needed, and new leaders will emerge. Will this game open the gate for future championships? Will it serve as a fitting end to the careers of young men who, regardless of the outcome of this game, have forever cemented themselves in Bama lore, like the handprints around Denny Chimes? Or will it mark the line just below the high-water mark, the beginning of a gradual decline?
We will find out soon enough, my friends. Order will be restored, rest assured. Oklahoma may not be our best opponent, but they are the next opponent in a string that will lead this team to a shot at redemption in late November 2014 at BDS. Until then, celebrate not the end of an era, but the dawning of a new day of greatness, the first rays of which will break over the Super Dome this Thursday night.
The next dynasty is now. It begins here, anew. As always, acknowledge the worst...and hope for the best.