NEW ORLEANS — In the final year of the BCS, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops won the one major bowl that had eluded him and proved a point about parity in the process.
After taking the past month to cultivate a young quarterback who was still coming into his own, Stoops brought a confident and motivated Sooners squad to the Sugar Bowl, where they stunned 16-point favorite Alabama 45-31 on Thursday night.
Freshman Trevor Knight completed a Sugar Bowl-record 32 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns for 11th-ranked Oklahoma, outshining Heisman Trophy runner-up AJ McCarron, who saw his otherwise charmed college career come to a sour end with No. 3 Alabama.
The convincing victory also gave Stoops an I-told-you-so moment, backing up his comment last offseason that the gap between the Southeastern Conference and other top leagues like the Big 12 is not as great as some "propaganda" makes it out to be.
"I have the utmost respect for Alabama, and I think this shows that obviously we can play with anybody," Stoops said. "So, enough of that. And I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well. I'm not pointing any fingers. But I think sometimes the comparisons aren't necessarily very true."
Stoops became the first coach to win all four BCS bowl games, having already won the Orange, Rose and Fiesta bowls.
Before the game Stoops had provided an element of mystery by declining to say whether he would start Knight or junior Blake Bell, or how much he'd play either one.
Alabama led 7-0 — having scored on the opening drive — before Stoops made his decision know by sending Knight out with the offense for Oklahoma's first series. Knight had played behind Bell much of the season. His completion percentage entering the game was 52.2. He had completed 47 passes all season — before a breakout performance in which two of his TDs went for more than 40 yards.
"It's huge for our program, to get a win like this after no one gave us a chance all year," Knight said. "We've got to ride this into next year. We can't settle with this. ... We want the big one."
Oklahoma (11-2) needed him to play that well in the 80th Sugar Bowl, the first in which quarterbacks for both teams threw for more than 300 yards.
His Big 12 team vanquished an Alabama (11-2) squad that had been ranked No. 1 much of the past three seasons, winning the previous two national titles before its shot at a third straight was derailed by Auburn on the last play of the Iron Bowl in late November.
Coach Nick Saban didn't find his team, favored by 16 points, was too deflated from its loss to Auburn to play up to its standard.
"I actually thought that the players responded in practice pretty well for this game," Saban said. "We put over 500 yards of offense up. Somebody had to do something right. I don't think that we played as well on defense as we're capable of or should have."
McCarron passed for 387 yards and two touchdowns, but his two interceptions set up Oklahoma touchdowns. He was also sacked seven times, fumbling on the last one, and Geneo Grissom returned his second recovery of the game 8 yards for a score, sealing Alabama's first two-game skid since its Sugar Bowl loss to Utah in January 2009.
"Put it all on me. I had two turnovers, (Oklahoma) ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14," said McCarron, who won 36 of his first 38 games before losing his last two. "I wish it wouldn't have happened, but I'll definitely take the loss and definitely take the blame, because a lot of it is probably my fault."
Freshman Derrick Henry's 43-yard run in the third quarter pulled Alabama to 31-24. But Alabama was unable to add another score before Knight found his groove again.
He lofted a perfect pass to Lacoltan Bester for a 34-yard gain to the Alabama 9. Shortly after, Knight rolled left all the way to the sideline before rifling a touchdown strike to Sterling Shepard, making it a two-touchdown game again with 10:44 left.
Henry pulled Alabama within a score once more when he turned his first career reception into a tackle-shedding 61-yard touchdown with 6:22 to go, but Oklahoma didn't fold.
Early on, Alabama looked sharp, leading 7-0 when T.J. Yeldon scored from the 1.
Soon after, Landon Collins intercepted Knight's tipped pass, but Oklahoma got it right back on Gabe Lynn's interception on the next play. One play later, Knight found Bester for a 45-yard score.
Jalen Saunders first touchdown reception from 8 yards out gave Oklahoma a 14-10 lead, but McCarron's 67-yard touchdown to DeAndrew White gave the Tide the lead right back.
With the game tied at 17, Alabama appeared on the verge of another go-ahead score when Yeldon fumbled on the 8. Instead, Oklahoma took the lead for good when Knight hit Saunders in stride down the right sideline for a 43-yard score.