If nothing else in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama will serve as the ultimate measuring stick for the Sooners. Just how close are they to competing at the highest level of college football?
“How could it not be?” OU coach Bob Stoops asked.
“In my eyes, they're still the best team in the country. They've been the best team in the country for three years, up to the very last play of the regular season. So a great, great team. We recognize that.”
But Stoops wasn't finished. “I think everybody would say they're as good a football team as we've played in 15 years.”
IRWIN SAYS HE'S READY
OU senior Bronson Irwin switched from right guard to left guard for the final two games of the regular season. Now he appears headed for right tackle to replenish an injury-ravaged offensive line.
“We work different positions all year round,” Irwin said. “Wherever I can play that's going to help the team, I'll feel comfortable wherever they put me.”
Switching positions, “it's not too bad when you've been here as long as I've been here. To me, once you learn right guard and right tackle, it's the same exact thing, you just have to flip it in your head. I take pride in being a versatile player.”
TRADITIONAL AND PROUD OF IT
The Sugar Bowl is a matchup of teams that make very few changes to their uniforms. And don't mind saying so.
“They're a traditional team just like we are,” said OU receiver Sterling Shepard. “We both don't have those flashy jerseys.”
Said Stoops, “I think in the end some players may look at bells and whistles a little more than they do overall tradition and history, but there's still a good number of them that do recognize the opportunity to play in these kind of great games, and they realize we've done it a lot. And there's still a lot of players that recognize the tradition and history of what you've been doing more than maybe the color of your helmet.”
SABAN HEADED FOR TV
Alabama coach Nick Saban will be a guest analyst on ESPN's coverage of the Auburn-Florida State national championship game.
“To be honest, I think it's really good exposure for our program to be able to be involved in some of those kinds of things and actually be able to have an opportunity to express your beliefs,” Saban told Sugar Bowl media Wednesday.
“You all have your beliefs and I certainly respect your beliefs, in terms of how you think things should be done. And so all of a sudden I get to get on the other side and I get to say how I think things should be done and get an opportunity to be just like you, which is really what I've always wanted to be.”
McCOY VISITS SOONERS
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a Sooner star in 2008-09, visited OU's practice Tuesday.
“I wish I could play him,” Stoops deadpanned. “Geez, that guy. Proud of Gerald. Good to see him here. Always has that big smile. Wonderful young man. Proud of the way he's played. He had another super year.”
STOOPS PRAISES MOSLEY
Alabama's C.J. Mosley won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. But Stoops went even further in his praise.
“I think C.J. Mosley is as fine a football player as I've seen in my time here at Oklahoma in 15 years, and that's the truth,” Stoops said. “Just an absolute perfect football player when you look at the physical abilities he has and competitive nature. There's times I marvel at it. You have him blocked and he shouldn't make the play, and there he is taking on another block and making the play or making it bounce to someone else who does make the play.”
JAZ SEES DRUNK DOG
OU senior Jaz Reynolds and some of his teammates ventured onto Bourbon Street this week, but the wide receiver said he couldn't have as much fun as he wanted. Not this time, anyway.
“One day I really plan on coming back after my career is over and having fun with a couple of my friends on Bourbon Street,” Reynolds said.
Asked for the strangest thing he saw on Bourbon Street, Reynolds laughed and said he's pretty sure he saw a drunk dog.
“I don't know if he was drinking, but the dog was wobbling, then he just fell over on the curb,” Reynolds said. “I thought he had to be drunk. I've never seen a dog that lazy. It was a little lab. That was the craziest thing I saw.”
OU tailback Brennan Clay: “If we come out with a victory, it definitely puts us at a high benchmark – that we are definitely a national championship caliber team.”
HIDDEN BENEFITS OF 3-4
Defensive end Chuka Ndulue likes OU's switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4.
“I like it because it gave me a chance to gain weight,” Ndulue said. “For a fat kid, I got to go to Chipolte and double up on my burrito. Little stuff like that makes me happy.”
Then Ndulue stopped and considered what he had said. “That makes me sound so fat,” Ndulue said. “But you know, I got to gain weight.”
SABAN TALKS STOOPS FAMILY
Saban's relationship with the Stoops family goes way back to his days as an Ohio State and Michigan State assistant coach in the 1980s.
Saban recruited the Youngstown, Ohio, area, and became close friends Ron Stoops Sr., Bob's late father, and Bob Stoops, the OU Bob's uncle, also an area high-school coach at the time.
“Ron was just a fantastic person and a really good coach and very well respected by all the players that he coached,” Saban said. “And (Uncle) Bob was a good friend. And he's a little different than Ron in that he was a little bit of a free spirit.
“So I remember that when I would be recruiting there, most of the time when the schools close you have to wait until people get home from work before you can go do home visits at night.
“I used to meet Bob at the boiler room at South High School and used to play cards, gin rummy, until I could go on a home visit. That was the kind of relationship I've had with them.”
BAMA ‘OLD SCHOOL'
OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops describes Alabama as “old school.”
“It's NFL style of football,” Stoops said. “It's refreshing to see ... there isn't anything tricky about what they're trying to do. So I'm excited to play in a game like this. I say that now. I don't know, come Thursday night about 11, I might not feel the same way, because if you can't stop the run, you can't win.”
OU defensive end Charles Tapper called it “powerhouse football. Like the old days. It's going to be fun.”
THE ‘CO' IN COORDINATORS
Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell share the OU offensive coordinator title, and this week, they were asked to describe how that dynamic works.
Heupel calls the plays and sits in the press box during games, while Norvell is on the sideline.
“I think it's my job just to remind Josh of things we talked about, ways that we want to attack people,” Norvell said. “Throughout the course of preparation, you talk about a lot of different things, and it's hard to keep it on track sometimes.
“But I'm like a reminder, I'm just poking at him saying, ‘Man, remember when we talked about this?' And it works well. … I've had a chance to work on a lot of different staffs with a lot of different people, and this is by far the best working situation that I've ever been a part of.”
Saban talked like the coach of a 7-5 team, not an 11-1 team that is coming off two straight national championships and lost to Auburn on Nov. 30 only on a flukish last play.
“One of our players said it best: Our victory is what defeated us,” Saban said. “When you win, sometimes you start to lose focus on the things that are important to being successful. The process of things that you do to pay attention to detail, play with discipline, do the little things correctly, all of a sudden don't seem as important and you don't practice as well, you don't prepare as well, you don't pay attention to these things, and all of a sudden it starts to show up in your play.”
Saban said that's why the Sugar Bowl is important: “How do we respond to getting back to doing the things that we need to do to play Alabama football, be the kind of football team that we really aspire to be and have an expectation to be, which I really don't think we finished the season that way.”