CCM: Alabama is a fluke play away from being back in the national championship, there were coaching rumors flying everywhere for a while, and the Tide is an overwhelming favorite to win this game. Is there any danger at all that there could be a focus problem heading into the Sugar Bowl?
RBR: Sure. There's always a danger of a letdown on the heels of such a disappointing loss. All the players seem to be saying the right things, though, and from a fan's perspective, this doesn't feel the same way as the build up to the '08 Sugar Bowl, where a flaccid Bama team lost to Utah.
Without jumping ahead too much to predictions, this build up feels much more like every other bowl game since that Sugar Bowl. Since '08, Bama is 4-0 in bowl games with an average score of 37-10. The biggest bowl game margin of victory in that span was actually the "let down" 10-3 year of 2010.
CCM: How much (if any) does the loss of guard Anthony Steen affect the things that Alabama wants to accomplish on offense?
RBR: I think it could be a pretty big factor. Steen was the only senior on the offensive line, and was probably the leader of that unit. As far as how it will impact what Bama wants to accomplish? It's not really clear. It seems that the two candidates at the top of the list of replacements are junior Leon Brown (6'6", 313) and redshirt freshman Alphonse Taylor (6'5", 335). Both are plenty capable physically, but there are some questions about preparedness. Brown is in his first year (he was a junior college transfer), and I believe he has spent the majority of his time working at tackle. Taylor might be Bama's best bet here, but he hasn't been put in a situation like this before, so he is a bit of an unknown commodity.
CCM: The more I look into the Alabama offense the more I see how much balanced that they are. Give us the keys to the Tide's offensive success.
RBR: Balance is probably a good place to start. Bama runs the ball about 56% of the time, but the yardage split between run/pass is 47% to 53%. That balance goes a long way to making sure that teams play the pass and run evenly. Aside from that balance, a major key for Bama is staying on schedule. When put in 3rdand long situations, the team has shown a maddening tendency to throw the ball short of the sticks (sometimes well short). I say "team" rather than point out AJ McCarron, because the blame is probably a 50/50 split. Half the time receivers run a route a yard short, and half the time AJ will dump the ball off five yards shy of the first down marker, despite a defender being in the immediate area.
CCM: The scariest thing for me, as a Sooner fan, is that Alabama has the nation's second ranked scoring defense at just 11.3 points allowed per game. Is there a weakness to this defense and, if you're Oklahoma, how would you go about attacking it?
RBR: Well, if I had answered this question a week ago, I would have answered "the secondary (specifically the cornerbacks)" immediately. As it turns out though, there has been a bit of news on that front. We have a true freshman cornerback named Eddie Jackson that you guys are going to want to look out for. He played a couple of games in October, where he absolutely shined, and then he promptly disappeared to the sideline for pretty much all of November without any real explanation. It was announced recently that Jackson will be starting the game in the Sugar Bowl, so whatever was keeping him sidelined looks to have subsided.
All of that being said, I would probably still say that the cornerback position is still the weakest link in Bama's defense. For all of his physical capabilities, Jackson is still a freshman, and if he's not in the game, Bama's third and fourth options at the position are not going to strike fear in the hearts of any team right now.
CCM: Special teams is the one area where Oklahoma fans would like to think that we have an advantage but then we learn that you have return guys like Christion Jones. Tell us about Alabama's kicking and return game.
RBR: It's frustrating, and I'm starting to think it's impossible to predict Bama's kicking game. Going into iron bowl, Cade Foster (Bama's go-to kicker) was 11 for 12 on field goals. In the iron bowl, he was 0 for 3. So our kicking game is money except when it really isn't.
Bama does punt really well. Senior punter Cody Mandell averages 47.25 yards a punt (good for third in the country), and the team allows less than 5 yards a return.
The return game seems to the area that favors Bama the most. While both Bama and Oklahoma have good punt return games that average around 15 yards a return, Bama's punt coverage seems to be significantly better than Oklahoma's (4.73 yards allowed per punt vs 16.33 yards allowed). You mentioned Christion Jones, and he would certainly be a guy worth watching in this game. He averages 14.43 yards per punt return and 29.28 yards per kick return, and has taken two punts and one kickoff back for a touchdown.
CCM: Alright, its prediction time, tell us how its all going to shake down in the Big Easy. Give us your game prediction.
RBR: I'm conflicted about this game. I think Bama wins, but I don't see the runaway victory that some are predicting. I expect Oklahoma to struggle mightily in the passing game, and consequently have a lot trouble putting up points. On the other hand, I think that the strength of Oklahoma's defense, combined with the loss of Steen will slow down Alabama's offense for a while. In the end, though, these two teams are not really that close, and Bama should pull away for a comfortable, two-score victory.