Malzahn: Auburn ‘will be motivated’ for Sugar

Published 7:54 pm Friday, December 9, 2016

By David Brandt

The Associated Press

An undefeated run through the Big 12 earned the Oklahoma Sooners an invite to the 83rd Sugar Bowl.

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As for the Auburn Tigers, well, they’re off to New Orleans after the College Football Playoff committee decided the program was the best option out of a jumbled mess in the Southeastern Conference.

The two teams will meet in the Superdome on Jan. 2.

The No. 7 Sooners (10-2, 9-0 Big 12, No. 7 College Football Playoff) finished off a perfect trek through conference play on Saturday with a 38-20 victory over Oklahoma State. Oklahoma lost two of three to start the season, but ended the season on a nine-game winning streak.

The Sugar Bowl is a step down for Oklahoma from last season, when the Sooners made the CFP semifinals before losing to Clemson. But coach Bob Stoops didn’t expect any sort of letdown.

“No concerns,” Stoops said. “At the end of the day it’s a great bowl game and we’re playing an excellent football team. We’ve just got to be in a position to play the best we can.”

No. 17 Auburn (8-4, 5-3 SEC, No. 14 CFP) emerged from a pile of options to be the second-highest ranked team in the SEC in the final CFP poll behind top-ranked Alabama. Florida and LSU were also candidates for the Sugar Bowl spot, but finished just behind the Tigers at No. 17 and No. 20, respectively.

Auburn’s eager to prove the CFP committee got it right.

“We’ll definitely be motivated,” Auburn coach Gus Malzhan said. “We’re playing one of the top teams in the country.”

The Oklahoma-Auburn matchup is a rare one: It’s only the second time the two schools have faced each other. The Sooners beat the Tigers 40-22 in the 1972 Sugar Bowl.

Some of Oklahoma’s players have played in the Sugar Bowl already: The Sooners beat Alabama 45-31 three years ago in New Orleans.

The Sooners are led by quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has thrown for 3,669 yards, 38 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Running back Joe Mixon has run for 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns while top receiver Dede Westbrook has 1,465 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns.

“You’re talking about a big-time offense to go with a very good defense,” Malzahn said. “We have a lot of respect for them.”

Auburn is led by a running game that features Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. The two have both had good moments this season and combined for nearly 2,000 yards rushing, but both have also battled injuries this season.

Here are some things to watch in this year’s Sugar Bowl:

SURGING SOONERS: Oklahoma had a rough start to the season, losing games against Houston and Ohio State during September. But the Sooners regrouped quickly thanks to a stellar offense that scored 34 points or more in all nine of its Big 12 games.

SAGGING TIGERS: Auburn has had an up-and-down season. The Tigers lost two of three early, but then rallied with a six-game winning streak to jump back into contention in the SEC’s Western Division.

Auburn couldn’t capitalize on the momentum, losing to Georgia and Alabama during the final three weeks of the regular season.

NEEDING WHITE: Auburn quarterback Sean White’s health (shoulder) was a concern during the final month of the regular season and the Tigers’ offense struggled whenever backups Jeremy Johnson or John Franklin III played.

White didn’t play against Alabama in the Iron Bowl but the Tigers hope he’ll be fully healthy for the Sugar Bowl. Malzahn said on Sunday he feels the team will be “close to 100 percent” for the matchup against Oklahoma.

OKLAHOMA’S DEFENSE: The Sooners’ offense gets most of the press, and rightfully so, but the defense has been pretty good over the last half of the season. Oklahoma held six of its last seven opponents under 28 points.