Gus Malzahn previews matchup with Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl

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Source | Sam Butler / The Auburn Plainsman

If you’re not going to be in the College Football Playoff, facing off against a top-tier team in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after the turn of the New Year is a sweet consolation prize.

And for Auburn and coach Gus Malzahn, there isn’t anything better than being in New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl.

“Traditionally the Sugar Bowl, in my opinion, is the best bowl in all of college football,” Malzahn said. “It really means a lot, especially in the SEC, and playing one of the top teams in the country against Oklahoma presents so many challenges.”

To even be here, playing in a New Year’s Six bowl after the 1-2 start, is impressive. Auburn battled past those losses to Clemson and Texas A&M to reel off a six-game win streak in the middle of the year, but the Tigers suffered some injuries to critical players that hampered their ability to run the offense effectively.

Sean White and Kamryn Pettway are both fully recovered from their shoulder and quad injuries, respectively, and keeping the offense from becoming one-dimensional will be instrumental on Monday.

“Any time you play the better-type opponents, the more balanced you have to be,” Malzahn said. “When we’ve been our best, we’ve been capable of throwing the football efficiently. Even if we haven’t thrown it a lot, we’ve been efficient when we did throw it, and that’s going to be a big key. We’re going to have to throw the ball efficiently tomorrow night to have a chance to win.”

Presumably, they’ll be able to move the ball effectively on Oklahoma’s 88th-ranked defense. The game, though, will hinge on Auburn’s ability to clamp down the Sooners’ high-powered offense, led by their two Heisman finalists.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield has thrown for 3,669 yards and 38 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, and although he’s a fine pocket passer, where he can torch defenses is when he improvises and scrambles. He’s only rushed for 143 yards, but Mayfield’s ability to run opens up downfield passing lanes — namely to receiver Dede Westbrook.

Westbrook is far and away Oklahoma’s biggest threat to catch the ball — his 1,465 receiving yards are more than 1,000 yards greater than the Sooners’ second-most productive receiver, running back Joe Mixon. Stopping those two is paramount for Auburn’s stingy defense.

“Obviously (Mayfield is) an outstanding playmaker that makes good decisions when things break down, and he plays with that edge,” Malzahn said. “All of the big-time quarterbacks have that edge, and he has that. Of course, I’m very impressed with the Westbrook kid, he’s a phenomenal player when he gets the ball, especially in space.”

Stopping those two makes a victory much more achievable, and a win over a top-10 opponent in a New Year’s Six bowl would give Auburn some real momentum heading into next season.

“To be able to get a victory in this game would be huge. 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.”

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