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. —Bob Stoops, Oklahoma head football coach
NEW ORLEANS — Whatever Bob Stoops may have said about the overall strength of the Southeastern Conference, that apparently doesn't apply when it comes to the challenge he sees before 11th-ranked Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
The Sooners' coach made that clear on the eve of Thursday night's matchup with No. 3 Alabama.
"In my eyes, they're still the best team in the country," Stoops said about the 2011 and 2012 national champs Wednesday. "They've been the best team in the country for three years, up to the very last play of the regular season."
Last spring, Stoops challenged the notion that the SEC — home of the last seven national champions — is the strongest league in the nation, calling some stories about SEC supremacy "propaganda."
His Sooners (10-2) have a chance to back that up in a big way by beating 'Bama (11-1), but Stoops knows that won't be easy.
Oklahoma is rarely a double-digit underdog, but odds makers have listed the Crimson Tide as a 16-point favorite.
Alabama coach Nick Saban only hopes his players don't buy into the spread or anything else that might over-inflate their confidence. The last time Alabama played in the Sugar Bowl was under similar circumstances. The Tide had just lost to Florida in the SEC title game, knocking 'Bama out of the national title picture.
Then the Tide came to the Big Easy as more than a touchdown favorite and got run out of the Superdome, 31-17, by Utah.
This season, Alabama's bid for a third-straight national title was upended by Auburn in late November.
"A bowl game is all about mindset," Saban said. "It's really hard to bring the season to the bowl game because the amount of time in between opportunities to play. So how your team sort of resets their mindset is really important.
"Sometimes if you're an underdog, you have a little bit more to prove," Saban continued. "So that mindset is a little better maybe than a team that doesn't have sort of the right motivation."
Here are five things to know about the Sugar Bowl:
FAMILY FRIENDS: When Saban and Stoops talk about the mutual respect they have for one another, they're not just being polite. Stoops' father, Ron, was a high school coach in Youngstown, Ohio, where Saban often made recruiting visits as a college assistant and played cards with Ron Stoops' brother, Bob, for whom Oklahoma's coach is named. Saban used to invite Ron and the elder Bob Stoops to observe his practices, and the families have even dined in each other's homes.
"This is a relationship that goes way back for many, many years, and I think it's because of the respect that I had for the family and the quality of people that they were," Saban said. "And I certainly have the same respect for the coaching fraternity that comes from that family."
FAMILIAR SURROUNDINGS: Alabama is playing in its 14th Sugar Bowl, having won eight. Before the BCS era, the Sugar Bowl was a game in which the Crimson Tide could win national titles, doing so for the last time in 1993. Many current Alabama players won a national title in the Superdome two seasons ago. Oklahoma, meanwhile, has been to six Sugar Bowls, winning four.
QB MYSTERY: Oklahoma has used two quarterbacks this season, freshman Trevor Knight and junior Blake Bell. Stoops has declined to discuss who would start how or much he expected either to play.
"When you watch these two quarterbacks, we kind of go to some plays a little bit more with one guy than we do another, so why give someone the advantage of practicing those plays more than another set of plays?" Stoops said. "It hopefully has made them have to work a bigger package on what we like to do with each guy."
SENIOR LEADERSHIP: Alabama's seniors include C.J. Mosely, who won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, and quarterback A.J. McCarron, the Heisman Trophy runner up. Those seniors who've redshirted have been with the program for three national titles and they've never closed a season with a loss.
"We've had a great run and left a great legacy here," Mosely said. "It would be a shame if we didn't finish it off winning a game like this in the Sugar Bowl."
GETTING DEFENSIVE: The matchup features two of the highest-rated defenses in the country. Alabama is ranked fifth, allowing 274.7 yards per game, while Oklahoma ranks 13th, allowing 336.3.