NCAA Football

Sugar Bowl 2014: Key Players for Alabama and Oklahoma in Exciting Matchup

This year's Sugar Bowl is a battle of two traditional football powerhouses, Alabama and Oklahoma, but smaller battles across the field will determine this contest. 

While Alabama will be motivated after failing to reach the BCS National Championship, it has proved to be more vulnerable on defense than we've seen in years past. Of course, Oklahoma has played with two quarterbacks rotating throughout the season, so it brings its own questions into this game.

So, which players must step up for each team? Which players have the ability to make a difference? Let's find out.

 

Blake Bell and Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma

The pair have shared quarterback duties for much of the season, with Blake Bell being the better passer (1,648 yards, 12 touchdowns, five interceptions) and Trevor Knight the more dangerous runner (438 rushing yards, 7.1 yards per carry, two touchdowns).

With Nick Marshall and Auburn having so much success against Alabama utilizing the read-option, Oklahoma could mimic that game plan and utilize Knight in a similar fashion. While he isn't as dangerous as Marshall, Knight's ability to run the ball could give Alabama fits. 

If nothing else, Oklahoma's ability to run either the read-option with Knight or a spread attack with Bell should give Alabama trouble as it attempts to devise a defensive game plan. So long as each player produces in his role and protects the ball, Oklahoma should be able to find a way to attack this tough 'Bama defense.

 

T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama

Oklahoma has been quite good against the pass this year, allowing just 198 passing yards per game (15th in the nation) and 15 touchdowns through the air while picking off 14 passes. So AJ McCarron and the passing game might find themselves stymied a bit in this game.

That means talented runner T.J. Yeldon will have to step up for the Crimson Tide. He's been excellent again this season, rushing for 1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns. If he and the 'Bama offensive line can control the line of scrimmage and wear down Oklahoma's front seven, it will be a very long 60 minutes for the Sooners.

 

Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma

Let's be honest—few teams can just line up across from Alabama and hit them in the mouth. Instead, to beat a powerhouse like the Crimson Tide, you need to win other battles: protect the ball and force turnovers, fool them with your offensive game plan, get a special teams touchdown, generate chunk plays.

The latter two are where Jalen Saunders comes into play. The diminutive wideout is a dangerous pass-catcher, sure, but he's also Oklahoma's big-play threat.  And Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix knows that the Crimson Tide will have to keep a keen eye on Saunders' every move, as reported by Trey Iles of NOLA.com:

“We have to keep an eye on him at all times,’’ said Clinton-Dix, whose team will face the Sooners in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday. “I think he’s the best weapon if you ask me. He’s a small guy but that guy is amazing. He’s fast. He can get open and runs great routes. So we have to keep our eyes on that guy.’’

Oklahoma State would agree.

Saunders scored two touchdowns in the Sooners’ 33-24 victory, including catching a 7-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left that gave Oklahoma a 27-24 lead.

He has 56 receptions this year for 654 yards and six touchdowns. But his pass catching ability is only half the story. Saunders is a dangerous punt returner. He averages 16.8 yards per attempt, sixth best in the nation, and has scored twice.

If Saunders can hit on a few big plays against Alabama, it will go a long way for an Oklahoma team that will find itself facing a more talented overall team, at least on paper. Saunders might also keep the Crimson Tide from playing too aggressively on defense, as they might fear he'll beat them on a big play. 

Oklahoma will need a few things to go their way if they are to beat Alabama. But a huge game from Saunders would certainly tip the scales closer to their favor.

 

C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama

For the second straight year, C. J. Mosley was named an Associated Press first-team All American. He also won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. It's no wonder, as he not only finished the year with 102 tackles, nine tackles for loss and five defensed passes, but he's also received comparisons to Ray Lewis.

Yes, Ray Lewis. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jay Norvell compared the two, according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com

He's similar in his ability to communicate, his sense, his football senses, the way he sees the field, gets everybody lined up. He's a really good football player and as good a linebacker as we've seen this year, and we've gotta do a great job of understanding where he's at and making sure we block him.

When we played Ray Lewis when I was in National Football League, I was just amazed where he always seemed to be in the right position all the time. That's the way Mosley is.

High praise, indeed, and praise Mosley will have to live up to, as Oklahoma will surely look to establish the running game early. If the Sooners turn to Knight to run the read-option, you can bet Mosley will be tested. 

How he answers that test will be a major factor in this game. Given that he generally wins his battles, however, don't expect Oklahoma to get the best of the nation's top linebacker.

 

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BCS Championship 2014: Most Important Matchups for Auburn vs. Florida State

Florida State or Auburn better hope to come out on the right end of the title game's most important matchups if it wants to win the national championship.

Football is a game of matchups. How can one team stop the opposing team's best players?

Much of Auburn's game plan will focus on stopping Jameis Winston. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner threw for 3,820 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. Winston has been a sensation since Day 1, and there's little that makes you think he'll shrink from the spotlight in the national championship.

It isn't all about Winston, though. Plenty of star players look poised to have a major say in how the game unfolds.

The victor may well be determined by who wins these three matchups.

 

Tre Mason and Nick Marshall vs. Florida State Front Seven

Auburn ranks first in rushing offense, racking up 335.69 yards a game. Nick Marshall and Tre Mason have been marvelous on the ground.

Florida State gave up only 116.54 yards a game, but it's safe to say the Seminoles haven't faced an offense like this. Nobody has found a solution for the Tigers' simplistic yet effective running game.

The Missouri Tigers came into the SEC Championship with a respectable defense, yet they conceded 545 yards rushing.

The key will be stopping Marshall and Mason in the second level of the defense.

Mason isn't a speedy home-run back, so Florida State will have to ensure that he's wrapped up after four or five yards so those runs don't turn into 10- or 15-yard runs.

Marshall is a great athlete, though, with the speed and athleticism to elude the defense in the open field.

If Auburn finds success with both Marshall and Mason, the Noles won't have a chance.

 

Dee Ford vs. Florida State Offensive Line

Although Auburn ranks 54th in sacks per game, the Tigers have a sweltering pass rush. Gus Malzahn and Ellis Johnson are adept at finding new ways to get after the quarterback. If the QB doesn't get sacked, he's at least been pressured enough to disrupt his throw.

Dee Ford has been the standout performer.

The senior defensive end leads the team in both tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (8.5). He's so quick off the edge and more than capable of being a nuisance in the pocket.

Malzahn praised Ford last week, via James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser:

“There’s no doubt he is an impact player,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Ford. “He has the ability to make a play when the game is on the line. He’s showed that this year. He plays his best games in the biggest moments, and we are going to need him to do that again.”

If Ford can hassle Winston in the pocket, the problems in Auburn's secondary won't play a big role in the national championship. After all, the best way to stop an opposing team's aerial attack is preventing it from getting off the ground.

The Tigers rank 103rd against the pass, surrendering 259.3 points a game. Should the 2013 Heisman winner get time in the pocket, he'll find open receivers.

Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw all had at least 900 yards receiving this season, and they're all more than capable of getting loose for big plays.

 

Florida State vs. Fate

As dumb and simplistic as it sounds, some teams lead charmed lives.

Growing up in Ohio, I watched as the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes combined talent with a little bit of magic en route to a national title. Time and again, the stars aligned for the Bucks, whether it was Craig Krenzel's touchdown to Michael Jenkins against Purdue, Chris Gamble's pick-six against Penn State or the entire national championship against Miami.

You get the same feeling with Auburn. Everything has fallen into place for the Tigers. They've had the "Kick Six" and "Prayer at Jordan Hare," not to mention how Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford, Michigan State and Baylor all faltered, allowing a one-loss team into the title game.

At this point, who's going to doubt Auburn? Florida State may have lost before it even takes the field.

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