OSU, Miss. build programs en route to the Sugar Bowl

Playing Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl is just more evidence that Oklahoma State is one of the best growing programs in the nation.

The 2016 Allstate Sugar Bowl is January 1 and be televised live by ESPN from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome beginning at 7:30 p.m. The 82nd annual Sugar Bowl Classic will feature over 70,000 fans for the 61st time in its history.

This is the 10th bowl game in a row for Coach Mike Gundy and the Cowboys.

“Ten bowls in a row is special for Oklahoma State University,” Gundy said. “Our fans and players and coaching staff have come to expect being in a bowl game.  And it’s been a tremendous impact on our football program and our university from a recruiting standpoint. And to now being in such a prestigious bowl as the Sugar Bowl, it is a really great lift for our football players.”

Not only is a bowl a reward for a good season but it allows OSU 12 to 14 additional practices every season.

OSU didn’t know until the last Saturday of the regular season that they would go to the Sugar Bowl. They were tied for second place in the Big 12 with Baylor and TCU. Baylor held a tiebreaker advantage but they were upset by Texas and OSU got the invitation.

“You know, it’s interesting,” Gundy said. “I was at an 11 year old basketball tournament in a small town in Oklahoma, and they did not have cell service.  So, when I drove down the road a little ways, my phone started dinging me with a bunch of text messages.  And I was getting play by play from coaches on our staff and was unaware of what was transpiring between the Baylor and Texas game.

“So emotionally for me, I was able to take a break because I was not aware of what has happening. But, once I found out, I was really excited for our players and our coaches and just glad that we made it into the Sugar Bowl.”

Gundy is not overly familiar with Mississippi.

“I’ve seen them play just a little bit,” Gundy said. “Obviously, we don’t get crossover tape on them. But there are times when we were waiting to play a night game or so on and so forth that I did see some of their games.

“I’m very aware of their defense and their defensive line. I’ve watched them a little bit. Laquon Treadwell, we’re familiar with him. At one point, we thought we had a chance to get him here at Oklahoma State.

“And the quarterback who came in from junior college a year ago, we saw him out on the recruiting trail.  And we follow Coach Freeze from a distance and are very aware of what they have accomplished at Ole Miss.”

Mississippi Coach Hugh Freeze is delighted to be in the Sugar Bowl. He said “next to being in the Playoffs that this has to be the pinnacle of everything you could accomplish this year.  Next to that Sugar Bowl means so much to Ole Miss family. And we’re excited to finally make it official.”

This is a tough match for OSU. Mississippi is the only team to beat No. 2 Alabama this season and they came within one game of playing for the SEC title.

“They’ve been the gold standard in this conference for years,” Freeze said of Alabama. “And, when you’re able to win on the field against them, it pays great dividends in recruiting. The Ole Miss brand now is, I think, better than it’s ever been in recruiting nationally.  And we’re able to get into recruits’ homes much easier.  And we’re in the battle for the top guys in the nation now, and that’s the only way that you’ll maintain the standard that we set of playing in New Year’s Six bowl games.  Beating great programs like Alabama is a way to do that. So it certainly is a great, great momentum builder to do that.”

Oklahoma State has a 54-77-1 (.413) all-time mark against SEC teams, while Ole Miss is 13-12 (.520) all-time against the Big 12 (current membership). Schools that are currently in the SEC have registered an all-time mark of 34-41-1 (.453) in the Sugar Bowl, while this will be the 20th appearance in the game by a current member of the Big 12, with an overall record of 12-7 (.632).

Mississippi lost to TCU in a bowl game last year.

“I won’t remind our team a lot about last year,” Freeze said. “I’m a big guy that you play the next play and you move on to the next assignment. I will look at the way we prepared and everything that I think we should do differently in preparing for this one. So we won’t talk a lot about that. That’s last year’s team that had a totally different DNA than this year’s team.  And so we’ll just talk about being prepared for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma State.

“I think it’s important that you perform well on these games for recruiting. It’s all about momentum. And I don’t know that any single game ever wins the recruiting battle. But, certainly, it doesn’t hurt at all and that can definitely benefit you. So it’s important that we play well and have a chance to win it.”

OSU poses problems for Mississippi, too.

“Well, seeing how we didn’t fare real well our last time against a Big 12 opponent, I have a lot of respect for those guys and the brand of football they play,” Freeze said. “I think we’re probably a bit more similar to them than we are different.

“From a distance, I admired the job that Mike has done at Oklahoma State and just to see that his guys have performed throughout the years. I know it will be a great test for us, and we’ve got to prepare.

“I’ve looked at everything we did last year in hopes to improve our preparation for a talented team like them. But I have respect for all of these conferences. They all have teams that can beat you on a given Saturday. I’ve said that all along because everybody has great systems and schemes and coaches and talent. And Oklahoma State’s struggling fit that bill.”

OSU was 10-0 but lost its last two games against Baylor and Oklahoma. Getting the Sugar Bowl was a morale booster.

“I think it’s a tremendous lift,” Gundy said “As coaches, we always try to face the facts and find a way to make our players feel as comfortable as possible and get them to prepare.

“We look at bowls as an opportunity for us as a team to spend a week together for all the hard work that they put in for the last 11 months but also to prepare to play a great game against whatever opponent that it may be.

“So we had two losses. We lost to the No. 9 team in the country and then lost to the No. 3 team in the country. But either way, it’s hard to lose. Prior to that, we’d won 12 games in a row.

“…when the game was finished down in Waco, they said that the 405 and 918 area code in Oklahoma, the hotels and the ticket offices started lining up.  I think that kind of gives everybody a good feeling to be able to get back to New Orleans and play in a big time bowl game.”

One of the late season challenges for OSU was player fatigue.

“We have our practice plans and daily operation from today all the way up to the bowl game already set in place,” Gundy said. “And they should be fresh and ready to go. Because they’re going to need to be with the style of offense we’re going to face. But I don’t see that as being a factor. And, hopefully, they’ll be fresh and ready to play hard in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

 

The Sugar Bowl is the first match-up of teams from the Big 12 and the SEC since a new agreement was signed by the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the two power five conferences. The Sugar Bowl will host the top available teams from each conference eight times in the next 11 years – in the other three seasons (2017, 2020 and 2023), the Sugar Bowl will serve as a College Football Playoff Semifinal. The agreement runs through the 2025 season.

Bowl games always have distractions and one for OSU is that offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich might be offered the Tulane job.

“Mike is a really bright, young star, in my opinion, in the offensive side of the game,” Gundy said. “We have had several offensive coordinators here over the last six or eight years that are all head coaches now and doing very well.

“And Mike’s come a long way. And at some point    I hate to speak for him, but I’m sure at some point in his career he’d like to be a head coach.  And it doesn’t surprise me that there are some schools that will start to interview him to see if he’s the right fit for their school.”

Freeze wants to win a national championship eventually and going to the Sugar Bowl is a step in that direction.

“It’s extremely hard in this profession when you have disappointment,” Freeze said. “The onslaught of the outside voices that everyone has to block that out. And you have to move on to the next game and stay true and stay to the course of who you want to be and to your core values and to continue to motivate your players every week to build upon the things that you’re trying to teach them. It is very difficult.

“We all are competitors. We have the highest goals every year to compete at a high level. And if you don’t get that done, it’s certainly    you have to look yourself in the mirror and you’ve got to put it away and move on.

“I think our staff have been very good at that over the course of our four years. And our kids have responded over and over and over again. And our goal now is just to improve on that consistency so that when a year comes that depth chart is right. You can’t control injuries and can’t control some other things. But, hopefully, we’ll have one of those years where we stay healthy and that depth chart is where it needs to be and we can even improve upon what we’ve done the last two years, which has been special.”

Oklahoma State has been ranked in the top 15 of the Associated Press poll in seven of the last eight seasons and has posted 10-win seasons in four of the last six years. Only once has OSU finished lower than third in the Big 12 since 2009.

In Freeze’s first season, the Rebels had a five-game improvement. He followed that with eight wins in 2013 and nine in both 2014 and 2015. His 33 wins in a four-year stretch are the best at Ole Miss since Hall of Fame coach Johnny Vaught led the Rebels to 36 wins from 1960-63 – a stretch that included three trips to the Sugar Bowl.

This will be Oklahoma State’s 26th overall bowl appearance (16-9), while the Rebels will be going to their 37th bowl game (23-13).