Bob Stoops loves to beat teams from the Southeastern Conference.
Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners will get a shot at Auburn at 7:30 p.m. on January 2 in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
OU beat the SEC’s Tennessee in 2015 in Knoxville 31-24 in double overtime and in 34-10 in Norman in 2014. And the big win was against Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl in 2014.
“I don’t have any thoughts on the league,” said Stoops, whose brother Mark is head coach at Kentucky in the SEC. “ I think every league is good. Every league is pretty much the same. You got your top teams that are all very good. You got middle of the road teams that are really good. And then you’ve got your bottom of the league that are all kind of fighting to get really good.
“So I think it’s pretty much the same across the board. I have said that for a long time. But again, I have great respect for all of the teams in the SEC as well as the Big 12, Big Ten, on and on. And, you know, got great respect for Auburn coming into this game.”
When OU beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, some Crimson Tide fans claimed Alabama wasn’t motivated to win because it wasn’t for the national championship. Some sportswriters have wondered if OU will be in that position against Auburn this year because the Sooners missed the playoffs by three spots.
“We will definitely be motivated,” Malzahn said. “We’re playing one of the top teams in the country. Our team is extremely excited to be at the Sugar Bowl, and that’s a very big deal. And our players understand that.”
“At the end of the day, it’s a great bowl game,” Stoops said. “We’re playing an excellent football team. We just got to be in a position to play the best we can.”
The last time Stoops lost to an SEC team was in 2012 against Texas A&M in Cotton Bowl.
“The thing that stands out to me about Oklahoma is they’re one of the better offenses in college football,” said Auburn coach Guz Malzahn. “They run the football so well. I know that Baker Mayfield gets a lot of the credit, which he is well deserving. He throws it well and things break down, but they run the football so well. So it will be a challenge for our defense.”
Auburn got the Sugar Bowl invitation because they were the highest ranked team in the SEC not going to the college football playoffs. Auburn was ranked No. 14 while Florida was next at No. 17. No. 1 Alabama won the SEC title. The Sugar Bowl matches the two top teams from the SEC and the Big 12.
“I just know Coach Malzahn a little bit,” Stoops said. “We haven’t been around each other a whole lot. But I have great respect for what he’s done, the coach that he is, the way his team has played. But we don’t have we haven’t been around each other a whole bunch.”
Auburn is 8-4 and tied for the second-most wins in the SEC. The Tigers finished in a tie for second in the SEC West. Two of Auburn’s losses were to two of the four playoff participants: Clemson and Alabama. No. 7 Oklahoma is 10-2 and swept through the Big XII with a 9-0 conference record.
Auburn’s defense, which held nine opponents to fewer than 20 points this season, ranks fifth in the nation, allowing only 15.6 points per game. Oklahoma’s offense averages nearly three times that total, 44.7, good enough for third in the country.
It should challenge a stout Tiger defense.
“The offense has been very prolific,” Stoops said. “There’s no doubt it all; it begins with Mayfield and his ability to get us in and out of plays and, you know, just his incredible accuracy.
“And then the offensive line has been so positive, with great backs and a great receiver Dede Westbrook. So there are threats everywhere you look. So it’s been one of our really, in my 18 years, if not the most prolific, it’s right there with the 2008 offense that set some records and was really strong with Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray, and Jermaine Gresham, on and on and on. So, anyways, it’s one of our better ones.”
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Malzahn said. “There’s no doubt about that. We have played consistently good defense all year. That was one of our goals coming into this season. Felt like we had a chance to play good defense. Our impact players stayed healthy. Coach (defensive coordinator Kevin) Steele did a super job with our guys. Just played solid all year and we’re going to have to play solid again. You’re talking about a team that’s very impressive on offense.”
Oklahoma junior quarterback Baker Mayfield has thrown 35 touchdown passes this season. The Sooners average nearly 320 passing yards per game, 11th in the country. Malzahn says passing proficiency is only part of the Sooners’ story.
“The thing that stands out to me is they run the football so well,” Malzahn said. “They’ve got the explosive guys down the field. They’ve got one of the better quarterbacks in college football. It’ll be a good challenge. I think that will probably be a key to the game, their offense versus our defense.”
Auburn is making its sixth Sugar Bowl appearance, the Tigers’ first in 12 years. Both Auburn and Oklahoma got off to 1-2 starts this season. OU lost to Houston and Ohio State in nonconference play.
“Got off to a tough start,” Malzahn said. “Of course, obviously we played a very good schedule early on with Clemson being one of those teams and almost beat them. But our guys really rallied. We had a very young team, very few starters back on offense. And it kind of took some growing time, and we started playing very good in the middle of the season.
“We’re still a young team. But as far as everything goes about coaching, we play the next game and there’s high expectations here and I understand that.
“Very proud of the way our team responded and just came back strong and finished strong. At the very end, had a couple key injuries. We’re tickled to death to be playing in the Sugar Bowl. There’s no doubt we’re going to be extremely motivated.”
Auburn must cope with OU’s passing and rushing.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Malzahn said. “There’s no doubt about that. But we have played consistently good defense all year. That was one of our goals coming into this season. We felt like we had a chance to play good defense. Our impact players stayed healthy. Coach Steele did a super job with our guys. And played solid all year. We’re going to have to play solid again, talking about a team that is very impressive on offense.
“And like I said earlier, the thing that really stands out to me right now is they run the football so well. Of course, they have got the explosive guys down the field and they have got one of the better quarterbacks in college football. So it will be a good challenge. I think that will probably be a key to the game, their offense versus our defense.”
OU left tackle Orlando Brown said he will return in 2017 for his junior season. Brown had a redshirt season and was eligible to declare for the NFL draft. He was a second-team All American. Right after the Bedlam win, Mayfield also said he would not enter the draft but return for his senior season. Cornerback Jordan Thomas also will return.
Stoops was happy to hear about his players returning.
“The biggest plus about it, it’s a huge boost in recruiting,” Stoops said. “Players know that Baker is going to be back and have a chance to continue to work the way we have, so it’s a big boost. And you know, that’s just like him to do it early and let everyone know this is his intention. And it will really help us in recruiting, I think, as much as anything.”
OU defensive back Will Johnson will miss the Sugar Bowl because he is still in concussion protocol for an injury that has kept him out much of the season. Freshman cornerback Jordan Parker, who was hurt in the OSU game, will play.
“I feel pretty certain we will be close to 100 percent,” Malzahn said about his injured players. “You know, like I just said, we had some key injuries, and they were to impact players late in the season. And it really hurt us. And I feel pretty confident now that 30 days away or whatever that we will have everyone a very good football during that stretch run as we were growing and when our impact players were healthy.”
Oklahoma finalized its 2017 schedule and the highlight is a trip to Ohio State on September 9. The Bedlam game with Oklahoma State has been moved up to November 4, probably to avoid a quick rematch should OU and OSU make it to the freshly restored Big 12 Championship Game. The lone bye week is September 30.
Here is OU’s schedule:
September 2 –UTEP
September 9 at Ohio State
September 16 –Tulane
September 23 at Baylor
October 7 – Iowa State
October 14 vs. Texas
October 21 at Kansas State
October 28 – Texas Tech
November 4 at OSU
November 11 – TCU
November 18 at Kansas
November 25 – West Virginia