By JOHN SHINN
NEW ORLEANS — Bowl games began because schools with large fan bases were attractive to tourism-driven cities. Television got involved later and getting popular college football teams on the same field in early January became highly attractive.
Consider tonight’s Sugar Bowl meeting between No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2) and No. 3 Alabama (11-1) a throwback to what bowl games once where and likely will be again with the BCS era coming to a close next week.
These are classic programs with iconic coaches, legendary players and, above all else, championship histories spread through generations.
“I’ll cherish this moment for the rest of my life,” OU defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue said.
Just look back on the Sooners’ last four bowl opponents — Texas A&M, Iowa, Connecticut and Stanford. Any of the those teams scream college football tradition?
Compare them with the Crimson Tide and their 10 national championships since 1961, 62 bowl appearances and their recent status as the dominant power in college football and you see where the excitement comes from.
In the Sooners’ case playing in a BCS bowl against anyone would be a thrill. They seemed to be left for dead following an early November loss to Baylor that dropped them to 7-2. They closed by beating Iowa State, then Kansas State and Oklahoma State — as road underdogs — to get here.
This game is viewed as the opportunity to show OU still is one of the elite programs in college football and as a way to build momentum for the 2014 season.
“I embrace it. I appreciate it,” OU linebacker Eric Striker said. “I know we’re all happy to be here and we should take advantage of this opportunity. When I actually heard, I knew there was no other team I’d rather play than Alabama.”
The Crimson Tide’s motivation is the one in question. After all, it was hoping this would be the year it became college football’s first threepeat national champion.
But the loss to Auburn in the regular-season finale ended the national championship hopes and left it without a shot at the SEC title.
However, the thought of playing the Sooners — a program with seven national championships, five Heisman winners and a tradition that rivals Alabama’s is something to get excited about.
“I think it’s fantastic to be a part of something that has that kind of tradition, certainly makes it special to be a part of,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
For the Sooners at least, the esteem of the opponent has made this bowl trip — the program’s 15th straight and 47th overall — different than many others. Players have enjoyed their time in New Orleans, but the opportunity to play against the Crimson Tide was the biggest prize. Questions about mindset and preparation weren’t necessary.
“We know we have a big challenge, but very excited about the challenge,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. Our team is excited about the challenge of it. And we’ve worked hard to put ourselves in the position, hopefully, to win the game tomorrow.”
The ramifications of doing that would be a massive shot in the arm to OU. Seniors have talked about wanting to leave with the program heading on an upward track. Those returning see this as a chance to catapult the Sooners into the 2015 national championship discussions.
Big bowl games against perennial national title contenders create those scenarios. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
Both OU and Alabama have done it many times in the past. That’s why they’re two of college football’s most acclaimed programs.
You don’t get games like this often. Both are savoring the opportunity.
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 11 Oklahoma
When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Superdome in New Orleans.
Radio: KMOD, FM-97.5.
Record: Oklahoma 10-2; Alabama 11-1.
Line: Alabama by 16.
Series Record: Oklahoma leads 2-1-1.
At stake: After being bounced from the national title picture in its final regular season game, Alabama still has a shot to finish as high as No. 2 in the rankings. The Crimson Tide also is looking to increase its nation-leading bowl victory total to 35 and its Sugar Bowl victory total to nine. Oklahoma aims to finish with a Top 10 ranking and back up coach Bob Stoops, who last offseason said the notion that the Southeastern Conference is the best league in college football is based on "propaganda."
Key matchup: Oklahoma's defense, ranked 13th nationally, will have its hands full with an Alabama offense that features Heisman Trophy finalist AJ McCarron at quarterback, as well as running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper.
Players to watch
Oklahoma: RB Brennan Clay leads a Sooners running game averaging 235.8 yards per game. Clay has rushed for 913 yards and six TDs, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Alabama: McCarron is playing his final game for the Crimson Tide. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up, winner of the Maxwell Award for player of the year and won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. He is 36-3 in three seasons as a starter. Linebacker C.J. Mosely won the Butkus Award given to the nation's top linebacker.
Notes: Alabama's only victory over Oklahoma came in the 1963 Orange Bowl. ... The Crimson Tide and Sooners played to a 24-all tie in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl. ... The Sooners have beaten the Tide twice in the regular season. ... Oklahoma is playing in its 47th bowl in program history and 15th straight under Stoops. ... Oklahoma is 27-18-1 in bowl games. ... The Sooners are making their ninth BCS Bowl appearance, more than any other program. ... Oklahoma has played in six previous Sugar Bowls, winning four. ... The Sooners' last appearance in the Sugar Bowl came in January 2004, a loss to LSU for the BCS national title. ... Alabama last played in the Sugar Bowl in January 2009, losing 31-17 to Utah, and has not lost a bowl game since. ... The Tide last closed out a season in New Orleans in January 2012, winning the BCS title game against LSU. ... Alabama is making its 14th Sugar Bowl appearance. ... Stoops and Alabama coach Nick Saban have two of the top three winning percentages among active college coaches with at least 10 seasons as a head coach. Stoops is second (behind Ohio State's Urban Meyer) with a winning percentage of .803 (159-39), while Saban is third at .745 (165-56-1).