Oklahoma proves its worth in Sugar Bowl

Bob Stoops wore a self-satisfied smile throughout Oklahoma’s postgame news conference Thursday.

As well he was entitled to.

Stoops’ Sooners had beaten mighty Alabama 45-31 in the 80th Allstate Sugar Bowl, a rousing, reaffirming revitalizing victory for an elite program that while it hadn’t taken a Florida-like precipitous fall, or even a Texas-like dip, still had seemingly dropped off the national radar.

“I want to say this in an absolutely humble way,” said Stoops, who rarely does. “We weren’t coming in on a load of wood.

“We’ve won some games around here, earned a decent reputation.

“Whether you felt that way or not, we weren’t really concerned about that. To be quite honest, we played how we expected to play.”

That was devising a fast-tempo offense, the Bama defense’s Achilles’ heel, built around redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who, in only his fifth collegiate start, set a Sugar Bowl record with 32 completions, tied one with four touchdown passes, and, after a potential confidence-puncturing interception on the Sooners’ first possession, didn’t have another turnover.

“The more snaps you get, the more comfortable you feel,” said Knight, who took every snap on Thursday after Stoops had refused to name a starter between Knight and junior Blake Bell before the game. “The more completions you get, the more comfortable you feel.

“It’s about just getting into that rhythm.”

For the defense, it was about creating turnovers — four of them — including the game-clinching sack, forced fumble and return for a TD in the final minute.

“Coach Stoops told us that turnovers would be huge,” said junior end Geneo Grissom, who had that last fumble recovery plus another one at the Sooners’ 11, along with a pair of sacks. “Without those turnovers, it would be harder to win the game.”

Indeed. Alabama netted 516 yards and even after a horrific first half seemed to be on the brink of a successful comeback until that final sack/fumble/score.

Such is the legend of near-invincibility Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide have built over the past five years, during which they won three national championships and seemed destined for a fourth until Auburn’s incredible ending in the Iron Bowl.

But Saban, whose feel for his team’s mindset is second to none, said Thursday he sensed a lack of focus after the Tide’s victory against LSU. That undoubtedly increased in the past week when the players were repeatedly asked if they didn’t feel that they instead of Auburn deserved to be in Pasadena instead of New Orleans.

“We didn’t pay attention to detail,” Saban said. “We didn’t do little things right, didn’t practice well, and that caught up with us in the Auburn game,

“I thought the players responded in practice pretty well for this game. But as a team, we didn’t play well enough to win, and Oklahoma really outplayed us.”

Alabama will be back, though. The Tide has the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation — again — and if they’re disappointed about not getting Leonard Fournette, just take a look at 6-foot-3, 238-pound freshman Derrick Henry, ostensibly a third-teamer who had 100 yards on just eight carries, plus a 61-yard touchdown reception.

But so should be Oklahoma.

The Sooners haven’t been on the top 10 recruiting charts of late, and they have few names on this year’s draft board. Saints rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills said the reason he declared for the draft after his junior season, even though he wound up being only a fifth-round pick, was Oklahoma’s uncertainty at quarterback for this season.

There won’t be that for next year. Knight, who wears No. 9 in honor of his idol, fellow Texan Drew Brees, surely has more performances like Thursday’s in him.

And Oklahoma, whose worst season since 2000 (8-5 in 2009) came when returning Heisman winner Sam Bradford suffered a season-ending shoulder injury three games in, will be back in the national championship conversation, if not in 2014 by the year after next.

That’s good for the Big 12, which, with the losses of Texas A&M, Missouri and Nebraska and the decline of Texas had become very thin in quality programs.

That’s also good for the Sugar Bowl, which over the next 12 years will match the best available teams from the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, except for the four times it’s a semifinal site.

This year’s game was a preview of that format, and with Oklahoma a 16½-point underdog, Sooners fans stayed away in big numbers.

Maybe those future Sugar Bowls won’t be automatic mismatches after all, and we won’t be seeing whole sections of empty seats.

In fact, it’s worth pointing out in that SEC teams lost in their last three Sugar Bowl appearances and four of the last five. Twice that losing team was Alabama.

So perhaps Stoops was on to something last spring when he spoke of “SEC propaganda” about the relative strengths of his league and the Big 12.

“I’m not going to expound of that,” Stoops said. “But I think that obviously we can play with anybody.

“I’m not pointing any fingers, but I think sometimes comparisons aren’t necessarily very true.”

One thing’s for sure. On this night, they weren’t.