After missing the national title game by one second and about 105 yards, Alabama returns to the field on Jan. 2 to face Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
This isn’t the game that anyone in Tuscaloosa wanted, but it is a chance for the Crimson Tide to finish the season strong and give their exiting juniors and seniors a fitting sendoff. They have to treat it like any other game.
Recovering from the Iron Bowl loss that Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart called “surreal and sickening” takes time, and the Crimson Tide have had more than a month to recover. During that month, quarterback AJ McCarron won the Maxwell Award and came in second for the Heisman, linebacker C.J. Mosley won the Butkus Award, sources said Nick Saban was hired by Texas except he was given an extension and a raise by Alabama, and a few high school recruits committed, decommitted and said to wait until February. You know, a typical December in college football.
Now with a real life football game within reach, Alabama’s main mission against Oklahoma is caring about the game.
Technically, the last time the Crimson Tide played in New Orleans, they shut out LSU 21-0 in the 2011 BCS title game. But the last time Alabama played under the guise of the “Sugar Bowl,” they were upset by upstart underdog Utah in 2009.
A repeat lackadaisical letdown after the loss to Auburn would be unacceptable, and Alabama’s players know that.
“Regardless of if it’s the Sugar Bowl or national championship, all eyes are still on us. Everybody is waiting to see how we’re going to respond to that loss,” Alabama cornerback Deion Belue said.
Using the Utah game as a point of motivation, however, could be a strength for Nick Saban. This team, with McCarron and Mosley and its championship mettle, does not want to be synonymous with another disappointing bowl loss.
“We come to practice every day, and we are out there to get better. We aren’t just going through the motions,” McCarron said. “We have a chance to win 12 games. Not a lot of teams in Alabama history can say that, not a lot of teams in the country can say that.”
Alabama would be a hefty favorite in any matchup—even against Florida State or Auburn—and is for this game against Oklahoma, but maybe the perennial pedigree of the Sooners and the threat of a repeat of 2009 looms largely enough to properly motivate the Crimson Tide.
“We have a great opportunity against a really good team to prove that we are a good football team,” Saban said. “The seniors here have done such a great job, and it would really be a shame if our entire team didn't try to finish this season the right way.”
Another thing to remember is: The last time Alabama lost in the Iron Bowl, it was to Cam Newton in 2010. They responded by dispatching a pitiful-looking Michigan State 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.
The quarterback search is on:
The other pressing issue for Alabama during the Sugar Bowl preparations is finding the replacement for their most boring, most clutch, most stable quarterbacking weapon, McCarron.
“For next year's guys, they have a great opportunity to make an impression for their future as well as for our team's future,” Saban said, about the Sugar Bowl. “There’s a lot to play for here.”
With McCarron on his way out of Tuscaloosa and into the clutches of Minnesota or Jacksonville or whoever drafts him into the NFL, Alabama’s eight or so backup quarterbacks will have a few weeks of bowl practice to earn the starting job. And it will be up to Blake Sims, Luke Del Rio, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and any other potential quarterbacks to try and separate themselves from the peloton of backups before the annual spring A-Day Game rolls around.
Prediction: Alabama returns to form and wins 42-17.