NEW ORLEANS — Whatever Bob Stoops may have said about the overall strength of the SEC, that apparently doesn't apply when it comes to the challenge he sees facing 11th-ranked Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
The Sooners coach made that clear on the eve of tonight'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 have a chance to back that up in a big way tonight, but Oklahoma is in the rare role of double-digit underdog.
Alabama coach Nick Saban hopes his players don't buy into anything 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 Alabama out of the national title picture. And heavy underdog Utah upset Alabama 31-17.
This season, Alabama's bid for a third straight national title was upended by Auburn in November.
"A bowl game is all about mind-set," 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 mind-set is really important.
"Sometimes if you're an underdog, you have a little bit more to prove. So that mind-set is a little better maybe than a team that doesn't have sort of the right motivation."
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 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."