Feature graphic courtesy of Lauren Anikis.
No. 17 Auburn (8-4) vs. No. 7 Oklahoma (10-2)
Where: Sugar Bowl, Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana
When: Monday Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. EST on ESPN
How they got there:
Auburn lost two of three to begin the season and two of three to end it, with six straight wins sandwiched in between. The most impressive of the bunch was their 56-3 manhandling of then-No. 17 Arkansas in which they ran for 543 yards and seven touchdowns. That set a school record for rushing yards in an SEC regular season game.
That rushing attack provided the formula for much of Auburn’s offensive success in 2016. The Tigers rushed for 3,342 yards as a unit (eighth-most in the country) with 32 touchdowns. While quarterback Sean White often alternated between ineffective and unnoteworthy play, Auburn could always count on its backfield, led by Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson.
If the offense was completely stymied, Auburn could still compete based on its defense’s talent. The Tigers sported one of the best units in the country, capable of stopping the run and the pass. They allowed 15.8 points per game, the sixth-fewest in the nation.
Why they can win:
While the Auburn passing game was one of the least productive in the country in terms of total yardage and touchdowns. Part of that is based on the team’s rushing identity, and part falls on White. Luckily for the Tigers, Oklahoma’s pass defense was similarly ineffective, placing near last in passing yards and touchdowns allowed per game. If Auburn can move the ball through the air a bit and pick up the third downs they run into, Pettway, Johnson and the running backs would benefit with the respect Oklahoma would have to grant the threat of passing.
It’s well known that Oklahoma can move the ball better than just about everyone, but if anyone can contain the Sooners, it’s an SEC team from Alabama. Auburn allows 0.42 rushing touchdowns per game, the second-best in the FBS, which will come into focus on the goal line. The Tigers gave up touchdowns just 34 percent of the time in the red zone, providing a real challenge for Oklahoma to punch the ball in. One final stat portraying Auburn’s grit: the Tigers’ require offenses to gain 22.36 yards for every point they manage, the best in the country. With the defense holding teams to miniscule yards-per-play averages, opposing offenses have to grind their way up the field and put together long drives if they want to come away with points. Often times, the hard work is rewarded with only three points. If Oklahoma’s defense is giving up touchdowns, the field goals Auburn cedes will not matter.
Player to watch: LB Carl Lawson
Lawson, an edge defender, often dominates the line of scrimmage; his 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks led Auburn this year. He also generated 24 quarterback hurries, according to AL.com. Oklahoma stands little chance if its offense can’t function, and Lawson has the best chance of disrupting it. The TFL and sack numbers prove he’s capable of blowing up run plays and hunting down quarterbacks. That’s important, given that Oklahoma can be nearly as strong handing off to its backs as letting Baker Mayfield throw deep. There are many defenders the Sooners’ offensive line have to worry about, including Montravius Adams and Marlon Davidson, and that might occasionally free up Lawson to make big stops.
How they got there:
Oklahoma looked messy at the start of the season. They opened their schedule with a loss to then-No. 15 Houston and fell to then-No. 3 Ohio State 45-24 in Week 3. Starting with that loss to the Buckeyes, the Sooners endured a five-game stretch in which they surrendered 40 points or more four times. Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes tied an NCAA record with 734 passing yards against Oklahoma. But the Sooners won that game 66-59 and improved their record to 5-2. The defense cleaned up a bit and no more losses awaited coach Bob Stoops’ team as Oklahoma won the Big 12 title, beating rival Oklahoma State 38-20 in the final week to clinch the conference.
Why they can win:
The Sooners have a versatile offense that boasts two Heisman finalists. Quarterback Baker Mayfield finished third in the voting and wide receiver Dede Westbrook placed in fourth. In offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s high-octane offense, Mayfield threw 38 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He averaged 11.1 yards per throw attempt, helping make him the most efficient quarterback in the country by passer rating (197.8). Mayfield most often targeted Westbrook, who was a top-seven receiver nationally in yards (1,465) and touchdowns (16). He averaged nearly 20 yards per catch, making him extremely dangerous downfield and after the catch.
But what makes Oklahoma truly dangerous is the presence of the running game to support Mayfield and Westbrook. Led by Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, Oklahoma totaled the 25th-most yards in the FBS. Perine missed three games, but still gained 974 yards and scored 11 times. He crossed the 100-yard mark four times in his last five games, including 239 in the season finale against Oklahoma State. Perine is always a threat to explode; he rushed for an NCAA record 427 yards in a single game last season. Mixon rushed for 1,183 yards with eight touchdowns and picked up 263 yards in Oklahoma’s barn-burning win over Texas Tech.
Auburn is very strong defensively, but it’s incredibly hard to defend against excellent rushing and passing attacks. Tigers coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will have to come close to a perfect approach, calling the right plays at the perfect moments.
Player to watch: LT Orlando Brown
The 6-foot-8, 340-pound Brown, Oklahoma’s most important offensive lineman, will have his hands full with a talented Auburn defensive front. The Sooners did a solid job keeping Mayfield safe (21 sacks surrendered), but it could be argued that the Tigers have the best defensive line Oklahoma has seen this season. With players like Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams just a sample of the Tigers’ defensive weapons, the offensive line has to be sharp. Brown is in charge of protecting Mayfield’s blind side. See this blindside sack by Lawson?
Plays like that can’t happen if Oklahoma wants to win, and Brown is tasked with shoring up that side of the line.
While Oklahoma has done everything well on offense, Auburn has defended in a similarly well-rounded manner. Brown and the offensive line must hold their own and grant the coaching staff the confidence to attack with both the run and pass.
Edited by Maggie Gottlieb.