Sugar Bowl Preview
New Orleans, LA - Alabama owns the most extensive bowl history in college football.
The Crimson Tide will look to add to it when they face Utah, a school making a record-setting appearance in the Bowl Championship Series, in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1) were 15 minutes away from a spot in the BCS title game, carrying a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter of their SEC championship matchup with then-No. 2 Florida. Alabama couldn't close it out, losing 31-20 and settling for its 13th appearance in the Sugar Bowl - its most frequent destination among its NCAA-leading 56 bowl games.
Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook Sportsbook.com have made Alabama –10.5 point spread favorites for the Sugar Bowl against Utah. Current College Fooball Public Betting Information shows that 88% of more than 7,883 bets for this game have been placed on the Alabama –10.5.
"Our players are certainly disappointed,'' coach Nick Saban said. "But this is an opportunity. If you're going to be a great team, when you lose, you want to come back and play your best the next time you play.''
Before becoming part of the BCS, the Sugar Bowl was a constant source of happy memories for the Tide during their dominance of the SEC under Paul "Bear" Bryant, who coached the team from 1958-82 and won national titles after Sugar Bowl victories in 1962, '79 and '80. Alabama's last appearance in New Orleans came on New Year's Day in 1993, when a 34-13 win over Miami capped a 13-0 season under Gene Stallings for its 12th and most recent national championship.
Alabama is 8-4 in the Sugar Bowl, and its 31 bowl victories lead the nation.
While not nearly as long, No. 7 Utah (12-0) also has a good track record in bowl games, going 10-3 and carrying the second-longest active bowl winning streak at six games - highlighted by a 2005 Fiesta Bowl victory over Pittsburgh that capped a 12-0 season.
The Utes, however, have reached new heights with this year's bowl berth. Utah, sixth in the BCS standings, is the first school from a non-BCS conference to play in a second BCS game since the format was created in 1998.
"Hopefully we can keep this going and keep it up and make this a yearly thing,'' said Utah quarterback Brian Johnson, a backup on the 2004 squad that was the first team from a non-BCS conference to qualify. "I've been saying all along I felt we were an elite team. We'll get a chance to prove ourselves.''
Utah's appearance marks the third straight year a non-BCS school is playing in a lucrative BCS bowl, with this year's payout for the Sugar Bowl an estimated $17 million. Boise State capped an unbeaten season with a victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but Hawaii was routed by Georgia in last season's Sugar Bowl - something executives from the Sugar Bowl committee pondered before extending the Utes an invitation.
"When you look at schools like Utah and Boise State, they've played up,'' Sugar Bowl executive Paul Hoolahan said. ``They've played competitively against top-name schools. To go 12-0 with the schedule they have, with the way they play, the way they get after it, I think it's a safe bet with those teams. Particularly Utah. We're comfortable they will compete at a very high level.''
The Utes also have the nation's longest active winning streak at 13 games after the Tide's 13-game run ended against Florida.
Utah will take on an Alabama team that averages 31.2 points and 196.5 rushing yards. Junior left tackle and Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith anchors an offensive line that created plenty of holes for tailback Glen Coffee, who had 1,347 yards and 10 touchdowns, with four 100-yard games and a 200-yard effort.
Coffee can break Bobby Humphrey's single-season school rushing mark with 125 yards against Utah.
Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson doesn't have big numbers - throwing for 2,096 yards and nine touchdowns - but he was intercepted just six times after being picked off 12 times last year. Julio Jones quickly emerged as his favorite target, as the 6-foot-4 freshman had team highs of 51 catches, 847 yards and four TDs - all Alabama rookie records for a receiver.
Alabama's biggest strength, though, is its defense. The Tide ranked third in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 256.9 yards allowed per game, fourth in rush defense at 78.9 and sixth in scoring defense with 13.0 points a game.
Terrence Cody, the 6-5, 380-pound defensive lineman that anchors the front four, had 23 tackles and 4.5 for losses. Sophomore linebacker Rolando McClain had a team-high 91 tackles - 11 for losses - along with three sacks and an interception.
That vaunted defense should receive a test from Utah, which finished no worse than 41st in the FBS in 10 major statistical categories and was 15th in scoring at 37.4 points per game, reaching the 40-point mark six times. Johnson, the 2008 Mountain West offensive player of the year, threw for 2,636 yards and 24 touchdowns in a balanced offense - five receivers had at least 23 catches and three scores.
Freddie Brown had 65 catches for 775 yards and seven touchdowns and became Johnson's go-to receiver the last four games, totaling 35 receptions and 381 yards with three TDs. On the ground, Matt Asiata and Darrell Mack combined for 1,211 yards and 14 touchdowns, with Asiata averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
The Utes finished 12th in the FBS in scoring defense at 17.3 points per game and 14th in rushing defense, yielding 104.8 yards per contest.
This will be the first meeting between the schools. Utah is 0-6 against SEC teams, although it hasn't played one since a loss at Tennessee in 1984.
Sugar Bowl Key Player Injuries:
[DT] Lei Talamaivao is expected to miss entire season - Ankle - 09/07/08
[LB] Matt Martinez is out for the season. - Bicep - 09/17/08
[QB] Nick Fanuzzi has transferred. - None - 08/26/08
[RB] Roy Upchurch is %27?%27 - Neck - 12/01/08
[LB] Jimmy Johns has been suspended from the team. - Disciplinary - 07/01/
[LB] Ezekial Knight expected to miss entire season. - Illness - 07/17/08
[WR] Will Oakley missed last game %27?%27 - Shoulder - 11/29/08
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Posted: 12/16/08 8:22PM ET