2009 Sugar Bowl Preview - Alabama vs. Utah
Utah's Brian Johnson & Bama's Julio Jones
Utah's Brian Johnson & Bama's Julio Jones
Posted Dec 30, 2008

It's statement time either way. Either Utah will come through big for the non-BCS teams, or Alabama will put a cap on a breakthrough season with a strong win against the nation's lone unbeaten team. Check out the CFN 2009 AllState Sugar Bowl Preview & Prediction.

2009 AllState Sugar Bowl

Utah (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1)

January 2nd, 8:00 p.m. ET, Fox

Payout: $14-17 million   Location: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans LA
National Rankings
Utah Alabama
Total Offense
31st  405.25 ypg 56th  367.15 ypg
Total Defense
17th  295.92 ypg 3rd  256.92 ypg
Scoring Offense
15th  37.42 ppg 30th  31.15 ppg
Scoring Defense
12th 17.25 ppg 6th  13 ppg
Run Offense
40th  168.42 ypg 22nd  196.46 ypg
Run Defense
14th  104.83 ypg 4th  78.85 ypg
Pass Offense
42nd  236.83 ypg 96th 170.69 ypg
Pass Defense
37th  191.08 ypg 21st  178.08 ypg
Turnover Margin
15th  0.92 22nd  0.62
at Michigan W 25-23
UNLV W 42-21
at Utah St W 58-10
at Air Force W 30-23
Weber St W 37-21
Oregon St W 31-28
at Wyoming W 40-7
Colorado St W 49-16
at N Mexico W 13-10
TCU W 13-10
at SDSU W 63-14
BYU W 48-24
Clemson W 34-10
Tulane W 20-6
W Kentucky W 41-7
at Ark W 49-14
at Georgia W 41-30
Kentucky W 17-14
Ole Miss W 24-20
at Tenn W 29-9
Arkansas St W 35-0
at LSU W 27-21 OT
Miss St W 32-7
Auburn W 36-0
SEC Champ.
Florida L 31-20
Position Ratings
relative to each other
U 5 highest
1 lowest
5 Quarterbacks 4
4 RBs 5
3.5 Receivers 3.5
3.5 O Line 5
3.5 D Line 5
4 Linebackers 5
4.5 Secondary 5
5 Spec Teams 4
4 Coaching 5

This is not the 2008 Sugar Bowl matchup, Utah is not Hawaii, and this is not simply going to be a token exhibition game for a non-BCS conference. Utah is a real, live 12-0 team with the talent and the experience to hang toe-to-toe with a team like Alabama.  

Once it became obvious that the Big East and ACC champions would get pushed off into the Orange Bowl corner, the big BCS question was who was going to get to play the non-BCS team. It’s a no-win game for Alabama, at least in the eyes of most of the sports world. If Bama wins, then it merely beat a non-BCS team. If Bama loses, then it’s Oklahoma losing to Boise State. But that’s not the case in either instance.
If Alabama comes out and blasts Utah 41-10, like Georgia did against Hawaii in last year’s Sugar Bowl, then give credit where credit is due. Utah is no gimmick; it beat teams like TCU, BYU, and Oregon State, while having few problems with the mediocre teams on the slate. This is a tough, veteran team with a strong offensive line, and tough, physical defense, and a bruising running game. This is like an old-school Big Ten squad more than a new-fangled spread team, and it should let Bama know that this isn’t going to be a show; it’s going to be a fight. However, while Utah is a lot like Alabama, it’s not as good.

Alabama came within a quarter of playing for the national title, and no matter what happens against the Utes, the program is back and about to go on a roll not seen for over 30 years. Head coach Nick Saban is stockpiling a tremendous array of weapons and talent, with more on the way. Next year was supposed to be when the Tide started to enter the national title picture again, but being a year ahead of schedule isn’t a bad thing considering how low the expectations were coming into the season. It helps that the schedule didn’t turn out to be as nasty as it originally appeared.   
While it’s easy to dog the relatively light Utah schedule, considering the win at Michigan was supposed to be the big, season-defining moment, it’s not like Alabama’s year was that great in hindsight. There was a terrific win over a mediocre Georgia, and everything else of note was a struggle, with the exception of the season-opening win over a Clemson team that didn’t turn out to be that big a deal. Even so, the Tide made it through the regular season unbeaten, and even though it was a down year for the SEC, this was an impressive year that needs to end on a high note.

The Tide has gotten the job done with a nice mix of an aggressive defense, a veteran quarterback, a good running game, young athletes, and experience in key spots. While all of the attention has been on the suspension of OT Andre Smith, the All-American who’ll likely be a top five pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, the team is good enough to pick up the slack. The rest of the offensive line is tough, too, and QB John Parker Wilson is an effective, efficient playmaker who isn’t going to make a slew of mistakes and always comes through in crunch time.
This is a battle tested Tide team that survived challenges from Kentucky and Ole Miss at a time when most teams lose focus and miss the seven-foot putt. There was the gut-check overtime win at LSU that threw a big scare into the mix, but for the most part, Bama dominated as the season went on. Much has been made about teams like Florida and Oklahoma blowing teams out down the stretch, but other than the win over LSU, the other four of the final five wins were by a total score of 132 to 16. No one runs the ball on the Tide, including Tim Tebow, who got a lot of praise for his performance in the SEC title game, but he only ran for 57 yards on 17 carries.
The Utes have gotten the job done with a nice mix of an aggressive defense, a veteran quarterback, a good running game, young athletes, and experience in key spots … sound familiar? This is a battle tested team that survived challenges from New Mexico and Air Force at a time when most teams lose focus and miss the seven-foot putt … again, déjà vu all over again. Utah has had almost the same season Alabama has had, but it won its biggest games with an epic late drive to get by TCU and its brilliant defense, and it blew away BYU thanks to a meltdown from Cougar QB Max Hall.

Utah was the original BCS buster with a win over Pitt in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl, but that was a more dynamic team than this one. With Urban Meyer as the head coach, and Alex Smith under center, that was a true spread team that blew away teams with precision and misdirection. This year’s team, looking to keep alive the Ute stretch of seven straight bowl wins, is hardly flashy. This is a power team that doesn’t make mistakes and uses the passing game to keep the chains moving rather than come up with the big play. In other words, Alabama needs to make sure the chinstraps are on tight and the focus is fully there; Utah isn’t going to get lost in the glare of the Sugar Bowl spotlight.

In any event, the game should be among the best in the last decade of mediocre Sugar Bowls, give or take a Florida State – Virginia Tech national championship-type game here and there. There won’t be a ton of big plays, but there should be plenty of big hits, great line play, and rock-solid coaching from both sides. Take away the non-BCS league tag from Utah, and this would be a big-time BCS showdown just like any other.
Players to watch: This is the final game in the impressive, star-crossed career of Utah senior QB Brian Johnson. Originally considered to be the ultimate spread offense quarterback when recruited by Urban Meyer, Johnson started out his career with tremendous promise as he was getting his feet wet. Just when everything started to click, he suffered a devastating knee injury that ended his 2005 season early and eventually cost him all of 2006. He hasn’t been the same player, he doesn’t have the same mobility or burst, but he has grown into a better passer and he got better as the season went on. Starting with the season-defining drive to beat TCU, Johnson ended the year with a five touchdown performance against San Diego State and a near-perfect 30-of-36, 303-yard, four touchdown day against BYU.
Utah can’t win unless Johnson is flawless, but Alabama could probably get by if John Parker Wilson isn’t perfect. However, the game will be a lot easier if he is. The senior was much-maligned early in his career after having problems with interceptions and mistakes in key spots, but he has become the school’s all-time leading passer, his interceptions have slowed down, and he’s become the cliché of a game manager. Usually that’s a knock to say he can’t make the passing game go, but it’s not his role to throw for 350 yards. It’s his job to hit his passes on third downs, run once in a while to keep the chains moving, and to make sure he hits on one big play early on to loosen things up for the running game. He has a superstar to help make that happen.
If Julio Jones wasn’t the No. 1 recruit in the country last year, he was in everyone’s top three. A mix of size, speed, and drive, he’s the near-perfect wide receiver prospect who’s been everything for the Bama passing game. It’s not crazy to suggest that he might have become the team’s most valuable player, even if he hasn’t been the best player (that was Andre Smith). The team could lose almost anyone and still not miss too much of a beat, but Jones if the one receiving weapon who demands extra safety attention on every play. He only has four touchdowns on the year and he hasn’t scored since September 27th, but he finished with 51 catches for 847 yards and he was a difference maker against Tennessee, LSU and Florida.

In a game like this with two teams with similar strengths, it could come down to the kicking game. Utah has, arguably, the best all-around kicker in the nation in senior Louie Sakoda, who has connected on 56-of-65 career field goals, has a punting average of over 42 yards on 236 kicks, and has even connected on 3-of-4 passes on fakes. He has unlimited range in all of his kicking duties, and with Smith gone, and outside of Jones, he could be the best pro prospect on the field.
Utah will win if... the run defense dominates. The Utes are 14th in the country against the run holding Air Force to 53 yards, Michigan to 36, and Oregon State to 92. They haven’t faced an offensive line anywhere near as good as Alabama’s, even without Mr. Smith, and they have to be able to hold up and for John Parker Wilson to win the game. It’s no coincidence that three of the Tide’s toughest games of the year (Ole Miss, LSU and the loss to Florida) came when the running game wasn’t working well. Tulane, before its defensive front got blasted by injuries, was able to hold the Tide to 99 yards, and Utah can do a bit of the same if it sells out a little bit and takes a chance that no one other than Jones can hurt the secondary. Utah can play a little pass defense, too, allowing 14 touchdowns and picking off 17 passes.
Alabama will win if
... Utah has to play catch-up. Utah doesn’t make any big mistakes, but this isn’t a team designed to make big comebacks. Attitude will be everything in this game. If Alabama can somehow get out to a two-touchdown lead on a few big early drives, the “oh no it’s happening to the non-BCS team” could start to creep in as Utah will be taken out of its comfort zone. That’s not to say Johnson can’t make things happen through the air when needed, and this isn’t a team prone to panic, but Bama is great at letting the snowball roll and can drop the hammer (and any other cliché you’d like to use for being able to capitalize on positive momentum and play better and better when things are going well) as well as anyone. Even without Smith, the Tide offensive line will have its moments when it controls the game, and it has to keep the time of possession on its side. There won’t be many turnovers, but Bama has to take advantage of every scoring chance.
What will happen: This will be a good game into the fourth quarter, but Alabama just won’t crack. There will be times when it seems like Utah will be right on the verge of making something happen to take the game over, but that’s when the Alabama running game will kick in with a long late drive to stay ahead just enough to pull out the hard-fought win. The Tide will win, but Utah will represent itself, and all non-BCS teams, extremely well.

CFN Prediction: Alabama 30 … Utah 16 ...
Line: Alabama -11