It's no bowl of cherries, but Sugar is No. 1 sweet


NEW ORLEANS -- Miami coach Dennis Erickson walked int the media room. He wore a gray suit, a flowery tie and a smile as long as Bourbon Street. An hour later, Alabama coach Gene Stallings strolled into the same room. He smiled, too.

"By next weekend, one of us is going to have the smile removed," said Stallings, whose team has won 22 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in the country behind Miami's 28. "But isn't it great to be in a winner-takes-all bowl game?"

Erickson said: "This is the biggest game of my life. The players know that. There is a lot at stake here. This is the Super Bowl of college football."

Actually, it's the USF&G; Sugar Bowl that pits No. 1 Miami (11-0) against No. 2 Alabama (12-0) on New Year's night, the first time the top teams have met in a bowl since the 1988 Orange Bowl.

Both teams arrived in New Orleans on Saturday night and were greeted by a four-piece jazz band and television cameras recording every move.

As the coaches began the first of five daily morning news conferences, neither Stallings nor Erickson could hide his excitement.

"It's different because you know regardless of what happens anywhere else, if you win the football game, you win the national championship," said Erickson, who is 44-3 in four years at Miami.

"When we won it in 1989, we had to have some things happen in the Orange Bowl. Last year, of course, Washington won in the Rose Bowl, so we didn't know what was going to happen. It's a great feeling to know that you control your own destiny."

This is a chance for Miami to make history and dominate a 10-year period as no other team has. The Hurricanes have a chance to win their fifth title in 10 years and consecutive national championships for the first time since Alabama in 1978 and 1979.

"The foundation for this program was laid long before I got here," Erickson said. "From the first day I walked on the practice field, I knew I had great players. I tried not to change the style here, just communicate with the players and let them have fun."

"I never thought I would be coaching for a third national title so soon," Erickson said. "Now we have a chance to go down in history with some of the great teams at Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Alabama."

Stallings knows all about Alabama tradition. He was an assistant coach under the late Bear Bryant from 1958 through 1964.

He returned as the team's coach in 1990 after the Crimson Tide went through almost a 10-year transition period. Now Alabama is a game from being No. 1.

"To be honest, I thought we were about a year away, but this team has proved me wrong," Stallings said. "They have proved a lot of other people wrong who said we couldn't win the SEC and challenge for the national title.

"At one point, ESPN was calling us the worst 5-0 team in the country, then we were the worst 6-0 team in the country, and the players hear that. It doesn't bother me because we're No. 2, so somebody is giving us a lot of respect. But with our players, it's a much different ballgame. It's very personal."

The game shapes up to be a defensive one. Miami has given up 101.6 rushing and 169.2 passing yards per game. Alabama, the top-ranked defense, has given up 55.0 rushing and 139.2 passing yards per game. The Hurricanes use a 4-3 defense, the Crimson Tide, a 3-4.

"They've got tremendous talent on defense, and we've got tremendous talent on defense," Erickson said. "Both teams don't blitz a lot and allow big plays. When you're great on defense, you don't let your offense screw it up."

Stallings said: "The winner will score in the 17- to 21-point range. We have to stop their offense, and that means we've got to run seven to eight plays on each series 60 to 65 percent of the time."

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