Bob Przybylo/Scout

Setting the stage: Sugar Bowl

OU's offense is back on big stage and hoping for better results than last few occasions.

Each week Sooners Illustrated will set the stage for every game of Oklahoma’s 2016 season. This time around OU is ready for the Sugar Bowl vs. Auburn

No. 14 Auburn (8-4) vs. No. 7 OU (10-2, 9-0)

When: 7:30 p.m. CST

TV: ESPN

Przybylo’s final thought

The groans were audible nationwide. Not just by national media members but by some college football players as well.

It was huge news for Oklahoma to have quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook as two of the five finalists for the Heisman Trophy Award.

Huge, but there were whispers that neither deserved it. That the incredibly lethal one-two combo at quarterback and receiver only got there because of inflated numbers that occur when you play against Big 12 defenses.

Mayfield finished third. Westbrook finished fourth, and then it was right back to work for OU’s duo with the Allstate Sugar Bowl looming against Auburn on Jan. 2.

This is a chance to silence the critics that right now purely see OU as just style with no substance when it matters most.

“Oh yeah, big time,” said offensive tackle Orlando Brown about being fired up. “Any time it's out of conference, it's a pretty big deal for us upfront just because we get to face against a different style of rushers and a different style of players. SEC - they're used to playing some physical football and stuff like that so we're ready as far as mentality and we're bettering ourselves right now to be ready to play them.”

It’s a matchup made for a college football playoff showdown. OU’s No. 3-ranked scoring offense vs. Auburn’s No. 5-ranked scoring defense.

The Sooners averaged just under 45 points per game this season and actually managed to score just under 48 points in nine conference games.

That’s where the finger-pointing starts. In games against Houston and Ohio State, both losses, OU managed to score 23 (33-23) and 24 (45-24).

The 21-point home loss to the Buckeyes stands out in particular. If the defense needed a 66-59 win against Texas Tech to wake up, it was the embarrassing effort vs. Ohio State that served as the wakeup call for Lincoln Riley’s group.

“So much has changed, so much more confidence has been built for us and we've got a bunch of guys that's ready to go out here and dominate,” Brown said. “We understand it's going to be a tough game, obviously, because this is going to be a great opponent and these are a great set of defensive linemen, but we're just ready to prove everybody wrong.”

To do so would mean a lot to OU’s national brand at this point in time. OU’s lone win out of conference in its last four tries is a victory against overmatched ULM in September. Clemson in the Orange Bowl? Blowout loss. Houston in the season opener? Outplayed physically. Buckeyes in Norman? Total domination by the visitors.

This is the test. The best defense OU has seen since Sept. 17, and an incredibly potent combo for Auburn on the defensive front with Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams.

“I don’t know that we care a whole lot that it’s the SEC; it’s that they’re a good defense. You turn on the tape and these guys — especially the front seven — and these really standout,” Riley said. “They get after some people that are really good up front. It’ll be as a good a challenge as we’ve faced up front. They’ve been one of the top-ranked defenses in the country all year.

“That’s what the Sugar Bowl should be. It’s one of those matchups and one we forward to.”

OU is averaging 557 yards per game offensively, but it spikes to 583 yards for its nine games against Big 12 opponents. For all the great things Riley has done during his two years in Norman, the Sooners have responded well to major layoffs.

OU’s offense was humming in the final two months of the season. It’s going to have to be ready to roll from opening kick in New Orleans.

“There’s different ways to get it done and look at it,” Riley said. “I think our guys have a really good mindset going into this deal.

“Do you wish you could’ve played it the next week? Sure. I wished we could’ve played Oklahoma State the next week, too. We handled that OK.

“We just take advantage and use the extra practices to our advantage and be as good as we can when we get there.”

Player to watch

In a showdown of OU’s high-powered offense against Auburn’s stingy defense, the one to watch is clearly offensive tackle Orlando Brown. The redshirt sophomore has not allowed a sack the entire season, but Carl Lawson is a different animal compared to anything else he has gone against. He’s ready for the challenge, but will Brown be good enough for the challenge?

Prediction

A lot of talk about OU’s motivation, or lack thereof, but it’s hard to see that being a real issue. The Sooners knew they were headed to New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl. After a 1-2 start, OU wants to end with a bang. And doing it against an SEC team would make things all that much sweeter. It won’t be easy, and really it’s about how much Lincoln Riley has learned from last year in preparation, but OU gets it done one final time. Sooners 34, Auburn 26.

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