Don’t mistake this game for a dumb luck holiday bowl trip for the Auburn Tigers.
This is an opportunity. A big one.
Auburn is here because of the impression it made during the midseason run, which made them resemble juggernauts. Injuries and peculiarities thwarted that momentum down the stretch, but that team still exists. Things certainly seem to be pointing toward a full-strength and fully focused AU team striding into the Superdome.
The Sooner offense embodies the term prolific. Two Heisman finalists on one side of the ball provides ample evidence.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield is as good of a spread triggerman as there is in college football. His pre-snap reads are refined and decisive, his release is lightning quick and he has the arm strength to make all the throws on the route tree. Mayfield’s best attribute may be his quick feet and movement in the pocket, which extends plays, gives receivers time to get open and allows him to avoid pressure that would disrupt throwing lanes despite his shorter stature. OC Lincoln Riley will double-call plays and use formations with various splits and alignments to strain defensive alignments.
That allows Mayfield to audible to the most ideal of the two plays based on the defensive alignment.
The Sooners have one hell of a tandem of backs in Samaje Perine and the deplorable Joe Mixon. Both are big backs, tipping the scales in the 230-pound vicinity. Perine is a quick-footed grinder who excels 'b' gap to 'b' gap with good cuts, low pad level and stout leg drive. Mixon is a long-striding slasher who is at his best on the stretch and outside-zone runs. He’s big enough to run through anything other than a solid tackle and has great long speed once he reaches top end. (Think Deuce McAllister).
Over the last nine games, all Sooner wins, wideout Dede Westbrook has amassed over 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns. That would be impressive in 7-on-7, which you could argue is the current state of Big 12 football. Westbrook can hit the home run with elite, deep speed. At the same time, he poses the most problems catching balls in small seams against zone coverage and exploding for yards after the catch. Riley will line him up all over the field trying to create space. You have to beat him up at the line of scrimmage and play physical with him in phase to keep him from lighting things up.
Mixon is the Sooners next best receiving threat, coming from the backfield and the slot. Mayfield distributes that ball around generously, though, as nine Sooners have double-digit receptions. Junior Jeffrey Meade is the most imposing and dangerous at 6-foot-5 and with plenty of speed.
The Sooner offensive line is the weak link of that side of the football. Left tackle Orlando Brown has NFL pedigree and is the size of Mount Vesuvius. Still, his effort is inconsistent, he doesn’t bend well and doesn’t consistently finish blocks in the run game. At 6-8 and 340 pounds he should be more dominate. Speed off the edge beats him frequently; he’s only graded out at 72 percent on the season on passing downs.
Guards Dru Samia and Ben Powers are prototypical zone-scheme linemen. They move well -- creating vertical seams when they get horizontal push and climb to the second level effectively. They struggle with bigger athletic defenders playing over the top of them, however.
Defensively, the Sooners are average up front yet generate tackles for loss relatively often. Their issue involves consistency. Basing out of an odd-man front, their two defensive ends, DJ Ward and Austin Roberts, do a lot of anchoring and block defending. Teams with strong offensive lines have been able to move them.
Nose tackle Jordan Wade is a decent anchor, but doesn’t get a lot of push and isn’t a factor in line stunts. The group is coached up well and plays with their hands engaging offensive linemen in an attempt to stall offensive movement and free up linebackers to run and make plays.
However, there isn’t a Travis Lewis, Dan Cody or Brian Bosworth manning the second level for the Sooners' defense. This group, consisting of Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Caleb Kelly (both freshmen) on the outside along with Jordan Evans and Emmanuel Beal (both upperclassmen) on the inside, is very athletic. They flow fast, can cut off passing lanes and fly to the edges in pursuit. They also blitz well.
The “but” here is that they don’t get off blocks very well and they often over pursue or mis-fit against the run. The Stoops brothers have no problem calling blitzes; they're at their best when 60 percent or more of all defensive snaps are zone blitz concepts.
As an offense, you must dictate the defensive calls by being effective in the run game. Then you force them into man coverage blitzes plus base fronts with zone coverage behind it.
The Sooner secondary is big. Every starter is 6-1 or better. Jordan Thomas and Jordan Parker are good corners playing deep zone coverage and not having to cover for extended periods of time. They struggle in man coverage -- especially against combination and levels routes. Texas Tech exploited that to the tune of 600 passing yards. Safeties Ahmad Thomas and Steven Parker are capable defenders in the middle, but don’t do well when forced into the box. Nickel safety Will Johnson is the team’s most athletic defender and does well playing the edge and over the slot.
Both Punting and kicking favor AU. Daniel Carlson and Kevin Phillips manage their jobs much better than Austin Seibert, who handles both duties for OU. Where Oklahoma has an advantage is in the return game where both Westbrook and Mixon handle those duties. They're lethal when given good chances. It will be important for Carlson and Phillips to neutralize that with their foot-to-ball skills.
*The Auburn DL should give OU huge problems, but look for the Sooners to try and replicate the Ole Miss offensive game plan and get throws airborne quickly. Disrupting the throwing lanes of the shorter Mayfield will be imperative. If AU opts for press man coverage at operative times, Lawson could eat the OTs alive. The interior linemen will be no match for Montravius Adams.
*The Auburn OL should move the OU front all night. They must play smart and pick up the fire-zone blitzes effectively. The AU run game will be the key to this whole game.
*Oklahoma's leading tackler, linebacker Jordan Evans, actually doesn’t tackle all that well. If Kam Pettway is healthy, it could get “good nasty."
*Rudy Ford could be a huge factor if he can lock on to Westbrook in man coverage when he's in the slot.
*Westbrook in the middle against AU's linebackers in zone coverage is a recipe for disaster.
*Oklahoma's offensive tempo will be the fastest AU has seen since Ole Miss.
*Oklahoma certainly will have reviewed the UGA film and surely see how effective those inside-game pressures (via linebackers) gave AU fits. That's something OU does well already. The line must be locked in mentally and not concede tackles for a loss due to mental lapses.
I think it will look a lot like the Ole Miss game early. Mayfield and Westbrook will hit a few; the OU run game is good and will force AU to defend both phases. The first half may be shootout football. However, this Auburn team has a lot of positive mojo right now. Think about it: A (relatively) clean bill of health, Pettway is returning next season, Jarrett Stidham is on board and the admiration within the locker room from a team that wants to honor its departing seniors. The physicality and relentlessness of the AU run game breaks the dam as they game grinds into the second half. An Oklahoma offense trying to maintain concedes a few timely turnovers while the Plainsmen drive the nail in the coffin by feeding the big guy.
I see Pettway going for more than 200 yards in a momentum-building win for the Tigers.
Auburn 37, Oklahoma 31