Allstate Sugar Bowl still brings elite football with Auburn-Oklahoma matchup

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Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Dede Westbrook shined in 2016 on his way to winning the Biletnikoff Award.

Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Dede Westbrook shined in 2016 on his way to winning the Biletnikoff Award.

NEW ORLEANS — The 82-year-old Allstate Sugar Bowl isn’t part of the fledgling College Football Playoff this season, but it’s still what it has always been — one of the elite college football post-season games.

Two of the most successful programs in the country — Auburn and Oklahoma — will represent two of the elite conferences in the country at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

As has become the custom when the Sugar Bowl is not part of the CFP, the game pairs the highest-ranked non-playoff teams from the SEC (the Tigers, No. 14 in the CFP rankings) and the Big XII (the No. 7 Sooners).

Auburn brings the No. 5 defense in the country (15.6 points per game) to face Oklahoma’s No. 3 offense (44.7), which is led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, who comprised 40 percent of the finalists for the Heisman Trophy won by Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson last month.

Both teams have notable histories in the Sugar Bowl.

Auburn is making its sixth appearance, the last one being a 16-13 victory against Virginia Tech that capped an undefeated 2004 season.

Oklahoma’s eighth appearance is the most of any school not currently in the SEC and its .714 winning percentage in the game is the highest among schools to make at least five appearances.

The Sooners’ last appearance was a 44-31 victory against Alabama three years ago.

“You play a team from the Southeastern Conference, you’re going to get a physical football team and a talented football team,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “I think our players understand that, respect that, and know that we are going to have to play great technique at the line of scrimmage. Hopefully they’re looking forward to that challenge because it’s going to come.”

The only previous meeting between these schools came in the Sugar Bowl when coach Chuck Fairbanks led the Sooners to a 40-22 victory against the Tigers and the recently named Heisman Trophy winner — quarterback Pat Sullivan.

Though the calendar, the NFL and the television networks conspired to bump the Sugar Bowl to the unusual date of Jan. 2, the game is slotted into a spot consistent with its rich history.

It’s the last traditional bowl game of the season, followed only by the CFP championship a week later, and it caps a day that also features the Outback Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and the Rose Bowl.

These teams’ seasons unfolded differently as Auburn established itself as a competitor to No. 1-ranked Alabama in the SEC West before losing two of its last three games — to Georgia and CFP finalist Alabama — adding to its season-opening loss to eventual ACC champion and CFP finalist Clemson and another to Texas A&M.

Oklahoma seemed an unlikely candidate for a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl after losing to Houston and Ohio State in its first three games, but it has won all nine games since.

That turnaround is no less dramatic than the one Auburn has managed since last season, when it was 7-6, 2-6 in the SEC and played in the Birmingham Bowl.

The turnaround was due in large measure to the defense, which is led by coordinator Kevin Steele — who was LSU defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in 2015 — and former New Orleans Saints assistant coach Wesley McGriff (2013-15) — who is co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Steele and McGriff, who was recently named defensive coordinator at Ole Miss effective after the Sugar Bowl, helped turn around a defense that ranked in the bottom third of the SEC last season.

“To end the year at the Sugar Bowl after we just played at the Birmingham Bowl is big kudos to what we did as a team in the off-season and the commitment we made to each other to be better than what we were last year,” Tigers defensive back Joshua Holsey said.

“It’s the best bowl,” Auburn quarterback Sean White said. “To me, if you aren’t making the playoff, it’s the Sugar Bowl.

Allstate Sugar Bowl

Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn Press Conference

January 1, 2017

COACH MALZAHN:  First of all, good morning. Happy New Year. Like I said earlier, our team is extremely excited to be here, playing a very good Oklahoma team. We have had a very good week. The hospitality has been great, our focus of our players during practice has been great, and they’re ready to play the game. So I’m looking forward to watching us play and going from there.

Gus, Auburn, over the decades, has built itself into a nationally relevant program, and it’s done so in a state with an already established national power like Alabama. Everybody in college football seems to be playing in their shadow. You have only been here short time, but from your perspective, how has Auburn been able to do that, to rise to the top, two national title games?  And what are the factors that have allowed Auburn to become what it has become?

COACH MALZAHN:  First of all, Auburn is a great program, way before I got there, with a lot of tradition. It’s a great school. It’s a place that you can recruit the best players in the country. You know, I was a coordinator for three years. We won the National Championship in 2010. I have been the Head Coach for the last four years. But I would just say overall it’s a great university and it’s a place that you can get the top players in the country to come to, and it’s the best conference in college football, in my opinion, to play. So I think it’s all of the above.

Coach Malzahn, your team is finally back to close to 100%. How important is that heading into this game against a high quality opponent?

COACH MALZAHN:  I think you’re right. They’re a high quality opponent, one of the best teams in college football, in my opinion. We were a young team starting out and the expectations were extremely low. We were picked either last or next to last in our league or in our division. We played a tough schedule early, lost some tough games. And then we got in a stretch about halfway through the season, and we were playing very good football. We were growing up. The roles were defined offensively and defensively, and individually, from a player’s standpoint.

Then we had a couple of tough injuries, and we played a tough schedule going down the end. But we are close to 100%. That’s really exciting from a coach’s standpoint. You just kind of feel a complete different feel from our players and our coaches ever since the bowl prep started. So, really looking forward to watching our team play.

You mentioned at various points throughout the year how much adversity this team has been able to fight through. With that in mind, first of all, how much have they met and maybe even exceeded your expectations in some ways in that regard?  And also, do you think it’s fitting for them that they should go out with a win in this game?

COACH MALZAHN:  Well, definitely, I have said this all year:  This is one of the top leadership groups I have been a part of, if not the best leadership group. And there was some extreme adversity early. There are always high expectations at Auburn. We expect to win championships. And, when you go through adversity, you find out truly the true character of your team.  And our leadership just took over. And so it would be very fitting for this team to go out with a victory.

Gus, Robert Leff had spoken about exceeding his own expectations even for this season. And there’s been some favorable analysis to see just how impactful he has been, particularly in run blocking. Can you speak to Robert Leff’s season and how strong a season he ended up having his final year.

COACH MALZAHN:  Robert [Leff] has turned into one of our better offensive players. He has really raised his level. You always talk about having good teams. They have their seniors play their best, and Robert was definitely one of those guys. We have a lot of confidence in him not just to run behind him. But he has really turned himself into a very efficient pass protector, and he will have a chance to play at the next level.

Oklahoma’s strength, obviously, is their offense, running and throwing. Just talk about the challenge dealing with that and dealing with Oklahoma’s offense.

COACH MALZAHN:  I think you just said it. They’re very good at running the football. They’re very good at throwing the football. The challenge is making them one dimensional, and our defense has played well all year. They’re going to have to play well again tomorrow night. But it’s a huge challenge. The quarterback is [Baker Mayfield] I’m very impressed with him. Obviously, he is an outstanding playmaker, makes a good decision when things break down. He plays with that edge.  And all of the big time quarterbacks have that edge.  He has that. I’m very impressed with the [Dede] Westbrook kid. He is a phenomenal player when he gets the ball, especially in space.

And then [Joe] Mixon, he is one of the best running backs in all of college football. And not just running, but he is such a good receiver. So he presents a lot of different challenges. I think the first two were in New York for the Heisman, and I think he could have been there just as well. I think they have got some outstanding players.

Coach, can you talk about your quarterback and how Sean [White] has looked after he has come back healthy and what we can expect?  We haven’t seen a whole lot of him.

COACH MALZAHN:  Sean White kind of took over the reins week three, started playing really good football. He was one of the top passing efficiency guys in our league in that stretch before he got hurt. He has practiced every practice that we have had bowl prep, and he is close to 100%. And it gives our guys a lot of confidence. He is capable of throwing the football, and he’s capable of running when he has to, too.

In these days of social media and big salaries and all of those things, the criticism that seems to naturally come with that, how do you as a coach deal with that and how do your players deal with it?

COACH MALZAHN:  Are you talking about from a player’s standpoint or coach’s standpoint?

Both your standpoint and the players’ standpoint.

COACH MALZAHN:  I think for me, personally, I turn off all of my social media throughout the year. That definitely helps. I always talk to our players about doing the same thing and just staying focused. I think that’s a big challenge in college football these days with the new social media craze and the Twitter and everything that goes with it and just staying focused.  So we talk to our players a lot about that. And specifically quarterbacks; high impact players.

Coach, you know running the ball is the mainstay of the offense. But how important is it to implement more of a passing attack against the Oklahoma team that does struggle a little bit against it?

COACH MALZAHN:  I think any time you play the better type opponents, the better balanced you have to be. When we have been our best, we have been capable of throwing the football efficiently. Even if we haven’t thrown it a lot, we were efficient when we did throw it.  And so that is going to be a big key. I mean, we are going to have to throw the ball efficiently tomorrow night to have a chance to win.

Gus, at the Iron Bowl, you had indicated that we could see more of John Franklin, III. And I was curious, not give away the game plan here, but with Sean White back healthy, do you still anticipate being able to integrate John more, particularly in the passing game as you said after the Iron Bowl?  Or with Sean healthy, is that no longer on the table?

COACH MALZAHN:  As you remember, we weren’t really for sure about Sean’s status. But Sean is healthy. And Sean is our quarterback.  John has taken all of the number two reps. And we feel confident, when he gets in there, that he will have a chance to do well. But Sean White is our starting quarterback.

A lot of the bowl games, the kicking game has been very unusual or interesting players. Have you guys spent a lot of time on that in practice?

COACH MALZAHN:  I think so. You look at bowl games, and a lot of times the bowl games look really sloppy. And a lot of times it’s the special teams. And we have really tried to spend more time in the special teams. Oklahoma has a very good special teams unit, you know, in each one of their phases. So we have spent a lot of time, and you know that will be a big part of the game also.

Gus, what has been the difference between Will Muschamp to Kevin Steele?  And how have their approaches led to where you are defensively now, being number 5 in scoring defensive players?  You seem to really, really like Kevin Steele and his personality.

COACH MALZAHN:  First of all, you’re talking about two very good defensive coordinators. Kevin came in, and he is a player’s coach. He really developed strong relationships early with our guys. He adapted to them. We didn’t really change our terminology. He adapted the terminology that our guys already knew. And I think that made a big impact on our players. And they know that he is in it with them. And they really played extremely hard. They have been focused. Kevin is a very detailed guy. He doesn’t miss anything. They really have responded to him. And we have had a very good year defensively. And we have a chance to be even better in the future. So with his leadership, we’re very excited about that.

With the start you guys had in the season, losing a couple of games, was there ever a moment at all where you kind of noticed they were about to go on that run that you guys went on?  And when you’re at that point in the season, how do you know you’re going to enter the Sugar Bowl?

COACH MALZAHN:  Just looking back you know, I had said this when we had the tough two losses that were close at home. I knew we were close as a team. I knew we were capable of being a good team. We just had to do it. Obviously, we played the LSU game and we challenged every one. And we found a way to win that game. And after that, then we kind of were able to get on a roll and have a solid season.

Gus, every game is important. But what would this game mean for you to get this victory in your program moving forward in 2017, considering what you have coming back?

COACH MALZAHN:  It’s very important. We’re playing the Sugar Bowl. Traditionally, the Sugar Bowl, in my opinion, is the best bowl in all of college football. And it really means a lot, especially in the SEC. And playing one of the top teams in the country, against Oklahoma, that presents so many challenges, and to be able to get a victory in this game will be huge. You know, the future is very bright in our program. But obviously, any time you win a bowl game, you get great momentum. So it would be very big.

The last time we asked about Marcus Davidson, that was kind of iffy as to whether he was going to be able to play in this game.  Is there a kind of update there?

COACH MALZAHN:  Marcus Davis, first of all, Stephen Roberts will be our starting punt returner.  Marcus has really battled hard to try to get back. He’s just not able to do what he needs to do to play on a consistent basis. I’m not saying we may not try to put him in there in a specialized role, but you know, Marcus is one of our leaders. He has been a very solid player for us for four years. He tried his best, but it doesn’t look very promising right now.

Allstate Sugar Bowl

Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops Press Conference

January 1, 2017

COACH STOOPS:  Thank you. I first would like to express our appreciation to the entire Sugar Bowl Committee, everybody that we have dealt with this week. It’s been a fabulous week. Everybody from the hotel to the practice site over at the Superdome and transportation, just everybody. It’s been a special week and a great town.

And I feel like our players have really handled it well. Everybody has been attentive and on time at meetings and practice, those kinds of things. So I feel like we have had a great week of preparation and we’re excited to play an excellent Auburn football team, a team that is now healthy.  As everyone knows, they had some guys banged up towards the end of the season and they’re now expected back.

Coach Malzahn and his staff and team do an excellent job. Very good football team. We’re just excited, really, for tomorrow night to have an opportunity to play, after such a break, and I know our players are excited about it and looking forward to the challenge of it all.

Bob, you brought it up a little bit and talked about they’re now healthy and on the offensive ball especially. Can you talk about the challenge of trying to stop a running game, I think, that is ranked 5th in the country?

COACH STOOPS:  Yeah. It’s a challenge. They got a lot of motion. A lot of distractions to try to get you out of your space or get your eyes in the wrong place, with a big, strong physical back also that is back and healthy, that’s another challenge just with his strength and size. So, it will take a lot of discipline defensively to be where we need to be, and then we’re going to need to tackle well and be physical.

Bob, a couple of weeks ago in your press conference, you mentioned that you worried about the damage to the brand with the video [Joe Mixon]. In the couple of weeks since then, what is your impression on how you have handled that and what has been the fallout from it?

COACH STOOPS:  I can’t say I have been able to keep up entirely with all that has happened. I know in the end, I gave our reasoning and our intention to help; you know, build a young man and give him a second chance. And that’s what we did, you know, two and a half years ago, and I feel like this young 18%u2011year%u2011old deserved that opportunity and has made the most of it, really, overall.

And I don’t believe a person’s %u2011%u2011 all of his opportunities need to be finished in the reactionary moment, split second, you know, reaction to something. He has been given another opportunity, and has grown from it, and it’s really been a positive influence around our team.

Obviously, you were 1 and 2 on the year; you’ve won 9 in a row, made this nice run to get to a major bowl. How important, considering you lost your last game, to wrap this with a win tomorrow?

COACH STOOPS:  Every year it’s important to win your last game. It’s always %u2011%u2011 it makes for a better, you know, out of season. And so that’s always the goal, you know, to win this last game.

Coach, can you talk about the fact that in the Big 12 you play a certain style of defense that you see week after week, and so you’re equipped and recruited to play against that, and you get in games like this against a power conference. How that is a challenge for you?  And if you consider changing schemes?

COACH STOOPS:  You know, you can only change so much. But every team that you play is a little bit different in different ways. You know, this team and the way they try and run the football with the quarterback as well as all of the different motions and the number of running backs they get in the backfield at one time, you’re going to see three of them back there or motioning a receiver back there a lot. They just have different methods of doing it. In the end, you practice it and it still gets down to blocking, tackling, and executing, regardless of the style that you play.

Bob, because of the vibe created by the release of the video concerning Joe [Mixon], does a win tomorrow night help change that?  Does it make that more important to sort of feel good again, just surrounding the vibe of the program?

COACH STOOPS:  Well, you know, that’s not going to change that. So we have won a lot of football games already. And that has not changed that. So in the end, it is what it is. We will continue to move on from it. We do have a very positive vibe around our building, in our hotel, at our practice; so winning can help continue that, but some of it won’t change.

Gus Malzahn has gotten a lot of credit for what he has done on the offensive side of the ball in terms of scheme and things like that. I want to get your take on him as a coach and what he can do to make things difficult for an opposing coach on the offensive side.

COACH STOOPS:  Just very creative with all of the different formations, personnel groupings, motions, you know, they give you a lot to read and to figure out, you know, as they try and create their seams and their gaps to run the football. So you have just got to be very disciplined to be able to handle it all.

Could you comment on the health of Mark Andrews?  He got off to a fast start in the season and as Dede [Westrbook] emerged, he went to the background.  I know he’s kind of banged up. What do you expect out of him tomorrow night?

COACH STOOPS:  Mark is fine and practiced and ready, hopefully, to have a good game. But he is in good shape and hopefully he can have an impact on the game.

Bob, your offensive line really came on during the year, even when you lost a starter and Ben [Powers] then stepped up there. They’ll face a line in this game that a lot of people regard as one of the top ten defensive lines in college football, could you talk about that matchup and how your line has looked in practice and things working up?

COACH STOOPS:  Definitely, our line has done an excellent job through the year of really just gelling as we went through the season, got better and better. We’re going to face, as you said, a great defensive line. The two guys that really stick out are [Carl] Lawson and [Montravius] Adams %u2011%u2011 great players up there. But all of the guys that rotate in there with them really do an excellent job; so very physical active, up front. It will be a challenge.

I want to get your take on Auburn’s quarterback, Sean White. You mentioned he is getting healed up.  What have you seen from him and what does he bring to the table?

COACH STOOPS:  Good quarterback, good decisions, has got a good arm throwing the football, great competitor. Very good football player for them and has the ability to run some as well. Not as much as some of the other guys, but still he can hurt you when he pulls the ball down or the opportunities he gets, he does a good job with them.

Bob, have you any discussions with Samaje [Perine] and Joe [Mixon] about the NFL?  And if not, how soon do you think that will take place?

COACH STOOPS:  We have just had some preliminary discussions, but that’s something the following week after the game that will be talked about more.

Bob, you guys have talked all week about the Auburn running game and the misdirection and those things and the problems that presents, but the one thing you have been most susceptible to this year, the deep ball, is something they haven’t done a lot of. Is it a relief or fun or exciting challenge to play somebody that is not going to try to go over the top every other play on you like some teams have?

COACH STOOPS:  We expect to get it. So they still %u2011%u2011 to go along with all of the misdirection and running game, they’re going to leak people out and try to get behind you. That is always a challenge as well, not only receivers but running backs as well. So I’d say it’s something that’s not a relief, but it’s something that you’re always prepared for and always working against it at practice, trying to improve at it.

This is your third trip to the Sugar Bowl, your second in the last three years, so a lot of your coaches and some of your players have been here. You had a run like this with the Fiesta Bowl, ’06 through ’10, went to three. Is there any advantage in coming back to the same place multiple times within a short amount of span?  Just comfort level, knowing what you get, those kinds of things?  Sooners used to have it with the Orange Bowl in the old days. Does that become any kind of advantage or help?

COACH STOOPS:  Well, I don’t know how much of one. I think you do have a level of comfort and familiarity with everything that is coming to you, your practice, your hotels, the way it is going to flow and operate, your meeting rooms. So you have a great comfort in knowing, you know, it’s going to be done well, as everybody here does it so well.

But does that end up transferring to the field?  I don’t think it has a lot to do with it, really, when it gets down to it.  Your execution on the field, you know, still gets down to that reaction, that moment of being out there and making plays when you get the opportunities and who will make more plays than the other and who will be able to come up with those plays when you need them.

So I don’t know that, you know, just the familiarity and all has that much to do when it gets right down to it.

Bob, the Big 12 gets hammered quite a bit from a reputation standpoint. If you guys win, it goes 4%u20112. How do you think the league has fared in the bowl season?

COACH STOOPS:  It seems like they have done pretty well. I can’t say that I’m up to speed with everybody, to be quite honest with you. You guys get it; I’m in meetings and in practice. You guys pay attention to all of that. That’s not my job, you know?  So I can’t say that I’m up to speed on how everybody else is doing. But you know, the few of the ones that I paid attention to, it seems like they play pretty well, but we will see.

Bob, earlier in the year, there seemed to be a thought that your leadership wasn’t there yet, you know.  But talking to a lot of these guys, it seems like your seniors have really stepped up. They all brag him up and talk about him, and Baker [Mayfield] has always been that guy, but it seemed like a lot of other guys, Ahmad [Thomas] and Jordan Evans and things, it seems like they really loved being a senior here at this game.  And has that been something that’s been present at practice and around the program over the last few weeks?

COACH STOOPS:  I think it’s fair to say it definitely improved somewhere there in the middle part of the year where they took a little more ownership of it and, you know, and stepped it up more, as the season went on.

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Les East

Les East

SportsNOLA/WHNO-TV/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renown freelance journalist. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.

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