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Sugar Bowl matches 'Bama, Oklahoma

Alabama heads to the Sugar Bowl facing the same kind of challenge it encountered the last time the Crimson Tide played in this game.

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They will need to stay motivated after their national title hopes have vanished.

Alabama was atop the polls all season and seemed headed toward a shot at a third straight national title before falling 34-28 to No. 2 Auburn. The third-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1) instead will face No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 at New Orleans. The game is sponsored by Allstate.

''Even though there is some disappointment in terms of how we finished our season this year, we're not disappointed at all in the opportunity that we have to play in the Sugar Bowl and to play against a great team,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''I'm hopeful that our team will look at this as a challenge and an opportunity for them to prove the kind of football team we can be.''

Alabama faced a similar situation five years ago.

When it earned that Sugar Bowl invitation in 2008, Alabama had just lost the SEC title to Florida with a BCS championship game appearance at stake. Alabama fell behind 21-0 to Utah and went on to lose 31-17. The Tide had a more pleasant Superdome postseason memory when they capped their 2011 national title with a 21-0 victory over LSU in the BCS championship game.

''How (this) team recovers and how that team goes and takes the challenge of this game is going to say a lot about the character and the leadership this team has,'' Saban said.

Oklahoma won't have to worry about motivation.

The Sooners' national title hopes were long gone when they boosted their chances for a BCS at-large invitation Saturday with a 33-24 victory at Oklahoma State, which fell from No. 6 to No. 13 after the loss. The Sugar Bowl invited Oklahoma over No. 10 Oregon (10-2), which also had a strong case for a BCS bid.

''Everybody just kept grinding, kept fighting, kept believing,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ''We've had a great attitude and a tough, hard-working group of players all along.''

Stoops downplayed the notion that his team might have some type of mental edge because it's coming off an emotional victory over an in-state rival while Alabama is recovering from a devastating loss to its rival.

''It might make a difference if we were playing next week, but the fact that there's so much time in between, I don't think it's a factor at all,'' Stoops said.

Stoops now has an opportunity to change his recent luck in bowl games against SEC opponents. Oklahoma ended the 2003 season with a 21-14 Sugar Bowl loss to LSU, capped the 2008 season with a 24-14 BCS championship game loss to Florida and fell 41-13 to Texas A&M in last season's Cotton Bowl. Oklahoma had won three straight bowl games - all against non-SEC teams - before its Cotton Bowl loss last year.

Alabama might provide the toughest challenge of all those SEC opponents. Stoops showered praise on Alabama during a Sunday night teleconference and called Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron the best player in the country.

''I think it's just incredible what Nick Saban and Alabama have done the last three or four years,'' Stoops said. ''They've been No. 1 in the country for like four years. We get it, we understand what a challenge it is, but we're excited about it.''

These two storied programs will be facing each other for only the fifth time ever. Oklahoma leads the series 2-1-1 and beat Alabama 20-13 when they last met in 2003 at Tuscaloosa. Two of their prior meetings came in bowl games. Oklahoma and Alabama tied 24-24 in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl. Alabama beat Oklahoma 17-0 in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1963.

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