In a few days the Oklahoma Sooners will be playing the Auburn Tiger’s in the Sugar Bowl. In a year where many bowl games seem to land somewhere in between inconsequential and irrelevant, this year’s Sugar Bowl carries a heavy weight. Three year’s ago, when the Sooners beat the heavily favored Alabama Crimson Tide in the same game, many credited the shocking upset to the ‘championship or bust’ Crimson Tide’s lack of motivation. That won’t be the case with Auburn. Earlier this year, there were rumors circulating that head coach Gus Malzahn was in jeopardy of losing his job. His once potent offensive scheme only yielded the 45th best scoring offense in the FBS. Scrapping together an 8-4 season saved Malzahn’s job. A New Year’s Six bowl victory in New Orleans would put his program back on the map.
The Sooners should be ready for a tough test, but history says they won’t be. Bob Stoop’s teams haven’t been terrible in bowl games but tend to underperform in postseason games they’ve been expected to win. On January 2 the Sooners will find themselves in a familiar position: favorites to win and, in this case, enemies of a national audience.
You’d think a team riding a 9-game winning streak—behind two Heisman Trophy finalists—would surf into their bowl game on a tidal wave of momentum. That’s not the case for OU. In light of the release of the infamous Joe Mixon security video, the university has been dealing with a PR crisis. Many have condemned the school for punishing Mixon with nothing more than a redshirt season. Others have called for Stoop’s job. In all likelihood, the scandal will shift any neutral fans watching the game over to Auburn’s side. Sometimes in sports, the weight of the whole country rooting against you will be harder to overcome. The 2004 New York Yankees and 2011 Miami Heat can attest to that.
To say a Sugar Bowl victory will be a piece of a cake is irresponsible, but here’s what the Sooners can do to avoid another heartbreaking bowl loss:
- Stop the run
Luckily, the Sooners’ defense matches up relatively well with the Tigers’ offense. Auburn’s passing attack is the worst the SEC has to offer. They’ve produced a litany of ineffective quarterback changes and a scarcity of passing yards to show for it. However, the Tigers have been able run the ball well this season. Running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson combined for almost 2,000 rushing yards in 2016. Nothing has been easy for OU’s defense, but if you had to say they’ve done something well, it’s stopping the run. If they can do that in the Sugar Bowl, they’ll be in good shape.
- Find balance on offense
This is not a Big 12 defense the Sooners will be playing. In fact, only allowing 15.6 points a game, Auburn might have the best defense the Sooners have seen all season. Whether in last year’s Orange Bowl against Clemson or early season losses to Houston and Ohio State, Lincoln Riley has had a hard time establishing the running game against non-conference opponents. Staying multidimensional on offense isn’t essential against Big 12 defenses, but it might be against standout defensive linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson.
- Coming out swinging
For most teams, this is a no brainer. But for Oklahoma, this is a paramount concern. Between past postseason failures against Boise State, West Virginia and Clemson and the Joe Mixon scandal, there are several distractions Baker Mayfield and company will have to overcome. If the Sooners come out flat, the Tigers will pounce. The best way to avoid a letdown is to come out of the gates swinging. It doesn’t hurt having the best deep ball threat in the country. Expect Westbrook early and often.