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From The Other Sideline: 5 Questions About Auburn's Sugar Bowl Opponent, The Oklahoma Sooners

Bob Pryzbylo from Sooners Illustrated answers five questions about Auburn's Sugar Bowl opponent, the Oklahoma Sooners.

1. How does this OU offense stack up with some of the teams in the past that have been dynamic? What makes this group different?

It’s funny you ask this because of Bob Stoops’ reluctance to ever compare one team to another. The one that does stand out is 2008 when you had Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray and Jermaine Gresham, but yea, this does have a different feel.

That different feel comes from the home run capability of wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Watch the film, there are so many major momentum-swinging plays on long touchdown passes from Baker Mayfield to Westbrook. It’s almost uncanny how the two connect when it’s needed most.

The evolution of the offensive line has been huge for OU, and it has allowed running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon to do what they do best. The quintet has gotten stronger and stronger. It took the embarrassing 45-24 loss to Ohio State to make this offense wake up. Offensive line was a huge part of that process.

There is officially no weak link in the group right now, which unfortunately for OU fans, you couldn’t say that in September.

2. What has been the biggest key to Baker Mayfield taking off at the quarterback position in the last two seasons?

Last year it was that brash bravado that he’s known for. The want to in terms of sticking it to the man and having that mega-chip on his shoulder.

But then you have the type of the year he had in 2015, and you wonder where’s the chip going to come from for this year? Honestly, there hasn’t really been one. It’s about his development as a true quarterback, someone willing to stand in the pocket and make the big-time throw.

The chip, guess you could say, is all the people saying he stands zero chance at ever becoming an NFL-caliber quarterback.

And credit for his development to that goes to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who has groomed Mayfield into being a gunslinger who wants to run as much as pass into a finely-tuned quarterback who picks his spots to run and has perhaps the best accuracy of any quarterback on the deep ball.

3. What has been the main issue on defense for the Sooners that has contributed to them giving up some big rushing numbers at times this season?

It took a lot of time for this defense to gel in terms of personnel and leadership. People were hoping they could just plug in the holes and return to 2015 form, but it takes time. Takes time for a freshman to find his footing and play with confidence. Takes time for a junior to turn into a senior leader. It didn’t.

The biggest detriment to OU’s rush defense down the stretch is two-fold. One, the pass defense was putrid during the first half of the season so OU had to do whatever was humanly possible to limit that, which led to more open holes.

The other, and this sounds like an excuse, is the lack of championship depth. OU doesn’t have it at the defensive line and linebacker.

Defensive ends Charles Walker and Matt Dimon left the team. Defensive end Amani Bledsoe has been suspended for a year. Defensive tackle Marquise Overton fractured his foot in September. Middle linebacker Tay Evans had his career cut short to concussions.

Evans, Walker and Dimon were all pegged to be starters and major contributors, while Bledsoe and Overton were going to make the most of their chances.

Instead? OU has been a patchwork group that can play well for a quarter or a half but hasn’t put together a full four quarters once this year and needs turnovers to offset the big plays it allows.

4. This team was pointed towards the CFP since the preseason. How do you think it will handle playing in a game outside the playoffs?

This is an outstanding question, Jason, and something think we’re all going to find out together Jan. 2 in New Orleans.

Gut feeling? OU should be OK. It’s not like the Sooners were “this close” to the college football playoff. The chips didn’t fall their way. They’re not in a spot like Penn State where disappointment could loom.

OU knew if it won the Big 12, it was back to the bayou. It handled its business in becoming the first Big 12 team to ever go 9-0 in conference play.

And the guys slowly started to make like a pact of one more year. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is staying for 2017. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is ready for one more year. Offensive tackle Orlando Brown. Linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Defensive back Jordan Thomas.

All coming back.

Now some of that isn’t a shock, but OU has had several instances in the past where someone has left early that you never even thought would. This time it’s flipped. Guys like Brown and Thomas immediately come to mind as clearly draftable players vowing they’re coming back to Norman.

The band is ready for one more run, and it starts vs. the Tigers. This is a catalyst to 2017 and making sure OU’s talented SoonerSquad17 recruiting class continues its momentum into signing day.

5. What is the biggest issue you see for this Oklahoma team facing Auburn? Any part of the game you see the Tigers having an advantage?

Oh, the physicality, for sure. This is the best defense the Sooners have seen since Sept. 17 vs. Ohio State, and it’s not even close.

OU remembers how it soiled the bed against the Buckeyes. Have the Sooners learned that much and gotten that much better? Or was it a product of playing weaker Big 12 defenses?

If OU cannot get its running game going with Perine and Mixon, it’s going to be a long day. Orlando Brown didn’t allow one sack the entire year, can he do the same vs. Carl Lawson?

This is a pride thing. OU’s national brand has taken a hit with losses to Clemson, Houston and Ohio State in the last year. Sooners know they have to man up. They want to man up, but in the end, are they good enough to do just that?

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