Samaje Perine (above) is a key player for the Sooners.
Auburn, Ala.--It has been a dozen years since the Auburn Tigers played in the Sugar Bowl and 46 seasons since they have faced the Oklahoma Sooners in football, but on Jan. 2 Coach Gus Malzahn’s team will mark both off the list when the two programs square off in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 7:30 p.m. CST.
Ranked ahead of Florida in last week’s College Football Playoff rankings at No. 14, Auburn (8-4) held that spot and remained the highest-ranked Southeastern Conference team with the Gators getting blown out in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday and dropping to No. 17. LSU was the next highest ranked SEC team at No. 20.
With Oklahoma (10-2) getting a 38-20 win over rival Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game to earn the Big 12 title, it sets up the Tigers and Sooners in New Orleans.
“We are thrilled about the opportunity to play in the historic Sugar Bowl against a great Oklahoma team," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "I’m excited for our players, coaches and the Auburn family to experience one of the best bowl games in all of college football. We can’t wait for this opportunity and look forward to our trip to New Orleans.”
Entering the game sixth in the nation in scoring defense, averaging 15.6 points allowed per game, Auburn will have its hands full from an Oklahoma offense that is one of the best in the country.
Averaging 44.7 points per game and 557.3 yards of total offense per contest, Oklahoma’s offense has been strong all season long. Since a 45-24 loss to Ohio State in week three, the Sooners have scored at least 45 points in six of nine wins.
While running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon are a load to handle, there is no question that Mayfield is the straw that stirs the drink for the Oklahoma offense. Completing an absurd 71.2 percent of his passes this season, the redshirt junior has thrown for 3,669 yards and 38 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.
For Auburn the story is going to be the health of the team with quarterback Sean White and running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson expected to be back to full speed by game time. That would be huge for Coach Rhett Lashlee’s offense considering the difference those three have made in 2016.
Still sixth in the nation in rushing offense despite horrendous games against Georgia and Alabama late in the year, the Tigers getting Pettway and Johnson back to full speed would be a major asset. Totaling 1,985 yards and 18 touchdowns this year, the duo would have a chance to do some damage against an Oklahoma defense that allows 155 yards per game on the ground.
Even more important for Auburn would be the return of White behind center. The leader of the offense and the key to the passing attack for the Tigers, the redshirt sophomore was leading the SEC and among the national leaders in pass efficiency before his shoulder issues at the end of the season. For the year he’s completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 1,644 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.
Just as important will be the health of seniors Josh Holsey and Johnathan Ford in the secondary. Auburn’s top cover corner this season, Holsey missed the Alabama game with a sprained ankle, but should be fine for the Sugar Bowl. Ford was hurt in the loss to Alabama, but should be good to go as well. That will be a key for the Tigers with Mayfield and top wide receiver Dede Westbrook forming perhaps the most dangerous throw-and-catch duo in the country.
“We’re very excited for the opportunity to host these great representatives of the SEC and the Big 12,” said Chuck Lapeyre, the President of the Sugar Bowl Committee. “Both teams have had outstanding seasons and bring exciting styles of play to New Orleans.
"This will be another wonderful opportunity for us to welcome thousands of fans to this great city and show off all it has to offer--world-class cuisine, trend-setting music, outstanding gridiron competition and more," he added. 'We look forward to showcasing our unique flavor of hospitality to the players, coaches, administrators and fans from these two great universities.”
“One of the Sugar Bowl’s primary objectives has been to preserve its great history while also ensuring a bright and healthy future,” said CEO Paul Hoolahan. “This year’s matchup will highlight one of the games from our past as Auburn and Oklahoma also played in our game 45 years ago. With our relationship with the Big 12 and SEC stretching through the 2026 game, we can confidently say the present and future look as good as our past.”
Jay Jacobs, Auburn's athletic director, said, “We are excited to accept an invitation to play in the Sugar Bowl. This will be an outstanding match-up for our team and a great bowl trip for the Auburn family. I’m especially happy for our seniors, who will have a chance to play in a big-time game environment one more time as Auburn Tigers. Playing in the Sugar Bowl in 1983 was a highlight for me and our team, so I know from experience it’s a special experience. The hospitality is second to none in New Orleans, and I look forward to enjoying it with our loyal fans.”
Auburn is expected to begin bowl practices on Dec. 14th for the Sugar Bowl.