Well, we made it. The rue of September led to an explosive resurrection in October and now the Sooners, after going unbeaten in Big 12 play, ride a nine-game win streak into the Sugar Bowl to face the 8-4 Auburn Tigers. Since October 1, Oklahoma has been arguably the nation’s best offense. The Sooners enter tonight’s game ranked third nationally in scoring (44.7 points per game), total offense (557.3 yards per game) and yards per play (7.55), and first in passing efficiency rating — on pace for a new NCAA record at 194.9. But the Tigers conversely boast just an impressive a defensive unit — ranking fifth nationally in scoring defense (15.6 points per game) and 20th in total defense (348.4 yards per game) — while featuring a potent offense, as well.
So, this matchup epitomizes the spirit of either league — a dynamic, high-powered Big 12 offense running head first into a big, dominant SEC defense... Something’s got to give. Here are a few things to watch for during tonight’s battle in the Bayou.
When OU Has the Ball
We fully know what the Sooners can do on offense. We also know what could hinder that objective: a beastly defensive front bringing consistent pressure with an effective pass rush. Auburn’s interior combo of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams may not have the accolades reserved for stars like Houston’s Ed Oliver or Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, but the two Tigers are stalwarts in their own right and could make Baker Mayfield’s night a long one by sneaking into the OU backfield early and often. Disruption and pressure is the key to stopping the prolific Sooners’ pass attack, and with Auburn also capable of defending the run at an exceptional clip, OU may need to go to the air in order to better set up the run, a reversal of the usual gameplan.
Clemson, Houston and Ohio State successfully pressured the Sooners into falling apart offensively by blowing up the line of scrimmage and hounding Mayfield into tough throws time and again. Auburn could follow the same blueprint if OU loses the battle in the trenches. To offset the aggressiveness of Kevin Steele’s defensive unit, we may see Lincoln Riley mix things up and go to the air to free up space to run for Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, who needs only 83 yards to become OU’s all-time leader rushing yards. As things may start slow, which I expect following a month-long layoff, if the Sooners are able to neutralize Auburn’s pressure then the Mayfield-to-Westbrook combo will find success as the game wears on. But the supporting cast of pass-catchers — Mark Andrews, Geno Lewis and company — will need to step up for their quarterback, as I expect Dede to be blanketed in shaded coverage most of the night. Deshaun Davis is a linebacker to also watch for Auburn, as he is effective in both the run and pass games.
The Auburn secondary isn’t terrible but did get lit up through second half of the season, giving up 200 yards or more in four of the last five games. With a little time and space to make his reads, Mayfield will come up with a huge day and could be the driving force to an Oklahoma victory. But if Lawson and Adams have their way and a turnover or two kill promising first-half drives for OU, it could be an entirely different ballgame than the shootouts we’ve come to know through this Big 12 season, and turn into a rather long night for the Sooners.
When Auburn Has the Ball
The Tigers were at their best this season when quarterback Sean White and lead back Kamryn Pettway were on the field. Gus Malzahn’s crew, even without Pettway’s backfield mate Kerryon Johnson, put up a ridiculous 543 rushing yards in a 56-3 shellacking of Arkansas in October. Despite starting and finishing in suspect fashion, the Tigers’ midseason win streak was impressive and came on the heels of leaders White and Pettway.
After the cartoon-like rushing numbers surrendered against Ohio State, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, this is a major concern for the Sooners, even more so if Pettway can reel off a few big runs early, allowing offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to milk the clock and play keep away from Mayfield’s crew. Although White enters tonight’s game healthier than he was late in the season, the Tigers aren’t necessarily known for passing but can still mix it up under the offensive creativity of a Gus Malzahn system. White, lacking the profound playmaking ability of Mayfield, relies even more so on his backs to carry the offense as he looks to find receivers Kyle Davis, Tony Stevens and Darius Slayton for a timely big play downfield. Sooner pass rushers Obo Okoronkwo and Caleb Kelly could make a difference here, but again, discipline is key as a few delayed runs and draws could break for big plays, keeping OU defenders at bay and with all eyes on the running backs.
But the sophomore QB could be baited into some mistakes if Mike Stoops dials up creative pressure of his own and keeps the backs from finding an early comfort zone. Stopping the run game is obviously the first and most important objective for the Sooners defense, no simple task against Pettway and company. Malzahn is known for his tendency to stick with a play that works, and repeatedly beat it into the opposition with merciless will if he smells blood. A battering ram like Pettway is exactly the kind of nightmare to make that happen against an exposed OU defensive unit prone to poor tackling and undisciplined technique. As Lawson getting into OU’s backfield is the concern on offense, it’s Pettway getting past the first level on defense.
How It’s Goin’ Down...
I’m a little nervous about this one, friends. The distractions of the last few weeks could still linger for some players, but I think overall the team has rallied together and will be ready to play come Monday night. But it feels like a fine line the Sooners are walking and how things start off could quickly set the stage for the rest of the evening. There is true leadership on this Sooner squad, and hopefully Mayfield can rally the troops if things look tough late. He’s fully capable, but it’s a tall order with so many eyes watching, and judging, the Sooners program on many levels.
As both teams have had a month off to get healthy and prepare, I can’t help but feel it helps Auburn more than OU. Even though the Tigers aren’t necessarily known for passing (which the OU defense obviously has trouble containing), a healthy Auburn really does resemble an Exhibit A for post-season disaster — the likes of which OU fans have seen through a few too many other eye-opening bowl games of note. Also, the fact the Tigers defend the run so well means the Sooners will be afforded few, if zero, mistakes on offense and must mix it up to keep Auburn honest...or risk seeing their time of possession be the lowest of the season.
I see things opening up in the second half and going back and forth after a slow, possibly mistake-ridden start, and being up for grabs late in the fourth. Auburn’s golden-footed Daniel Carlson, SB Nation 1st-Team All-American kicker aplty nicknamed “Legatron”, could be the X-factor in what many expect to be a close contest. The first team to 30 wins. So, with a 50-50 mindset, I’ll put finger to keystroke that Oklahoma — a three-point favorite — prevails over Auburn, 31-27, on Monday night in New Orleans.
All that’s left now is for Toby Rowland to set the scene...