New Orleans, La.--If Auburn can’t pull off an upset of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night it won’t be because a lack of emphasis or preparation. At least that is the take from Gus Malzahn, head coach of the Tigers, who will send his team onto the Superdome turf to face one of college football’s hottest teams.
“It is very important, we are playing the Sugar Bowl,” said Malzahn, whose 2015 squad finished its season in the Birmingham Bowl, an event several levels down the postseason pecking order.
“Traditionally, the Sugar Bowl, in my opinion, is the best bowl in all of college football,”?he said. “It really means a lot, especially in the SEC.
“Playing one of the top teams in the country, against Oklahoma, that presents so many challenges and to be able to get a victory in this game will be huge. You know, the future is very bright in our program, but obviously any time you win a bowl game you get great momentum so it would be very big.”
Kickoff is set for shortly after 7:30 p.m. CDT and the contest will be televised on ESPN.
If Auburn is going to head home a winner it will need to perform at a high level defensively. Oklahoma’s offense averages 7.55 yards per snap, 573.3 yards per game and 44.7 points per contest. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was a Heisman Trophy finalist as was wide receiver Dede Westbrook.
Baker Mayfield has thrown 31 touchdown passes with nine interceptions during OU's nine-game winning streak.
Oklahoma’s 194.9 pass efficiency rating is off the charts. The NCAA record for a season is 191.2 by Baylor in 2011.
“They are very good at running the football,” Malzahn said. “They are very good at throwing the football. The challenge is making them one dimensional, and our defense has played well all year. They are going to have to play well again tomorrow night, but it is a huge challenge.
“The quarterback, I am very impressed with him. Obviously, he is an outstanding playmaker and makes a good decision when things break down. He plays with that edge, and all of the big-time quarterbacks have that edge. He has that.
“I am very impressed with the Westbrook kid,” Malzahn said. “He is a phenomenal player when he gets the ball, especially in space.
“And then (Joe) Mixon, he is one of the best running backs in all of college football, and not just running, but he is such a good receiver so he presents a lot of different challenges. I think the first two were in New York for the Heisman and I think he could have been there just as well. I think they have got some outstanding players.”
The task of containing the Sooners goes to a group led by the Auburn’s first-year defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, a veteran coach who took over from Will Muschamp. Malzahn said Muschamp did a good job and Steele has led the defense to continued improvement.
“First of all, you are talking about two very good defensive coordinators,” the head coach said. “Kevin came in, and he is a players’ coach. He really developed strong relationships early with our guys. He adapted to them. We didn’t really change our terminology. He adapted the terminology that our guys already knew and I think that made a big impact on our players.
“They know that he is in it with them and they really played extremely hard,” the coach added. “They have been focused. Kevin is a very detailed guy. He doesn't miss anything. They really have responded to him and we have had a very good year defensively. We have a chance to be even better in the future.With his leadership we are very excited about that.”
Kevin Steele moved to Auburn from LSU where he was the defensive coordinator for the Bayou Bengals.
Offensively, the Tigers are getting boost with the return of their starting quarterback, who missed the previous two games with a shoulder injury. “Sean White kind of took over the reins week three, and we started playing really good football,”?Malzahn said. “He was one of the top passing efficiency guys in our league in that stretch before he got hurt.
“He has practiced every practice that we have had bowl prep, and he is close to 100 percent,” Malzahn said. “It gives our guys a lot of confidence. He is capable of throwing the football and he is capable of running when he has to, too.”
Oklahoma has had issues at times this year defending the pass. Asked about that, Malzahn responded, “I think any time you play the better type opponents, the better balanced you have to be. When we have been our best, we have been capable of throwing the football efficiently.
“Even if we haven’t thrown it a lot, we were efficient when we did throw it and so that is going to be a big key. I mean, we are going to have to throw the ball efficiently tomorrow night to have a chance to win.”
Auburn’s coach said the Tigers have not forgotten about special teams play. “You look at bowl games and a lot of times the bowl games look really sloppy, and a lot of times it’s the special teams. We have really tried to spend more time in the special teams. Oklahoma has a very good special teams unit in each one of their phases.”
Auburn will bring an 8-4 record into the game while Oklahoma is 10-2. The teams have just one common opponent. The Sooners defeated Louisiana-Monroe 59-17 on Sept. 10th while Auburn was a 58-7 winners vs. the Warhawks on Oct.1st.