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2017 Sugar Bowl, Auburn vs Oklahoma: Q&A with Crimson and Cream Machine

Graham Dudley of the SB Nation site Crimson and Cream Machine answered my questions. Here is a link to my answers to them.

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1) Oklahoma started the season the same way Auburn did with a 1-2 record but bounced back to finish undefeated. What was the feeling around the team during that time frame and how did that evolve as the Sooners went on the run to finish the year?

The Houston loss to begin the season was extremely disappointing, but most fans thought OU had a real chance at redemption with the Ohio State game. Obviously, that didn't work out at all. I'd say the whole fan base was feeling pretty nihilistic at that point, myself included. I was extremely skeptical of OU's chances in the Big 12—it just didn't look like they had much of a defense, and it looked like Lincoln Riley and Baker Mayfield had taken a step back.

OU went down early to TCU, and that looked like the end of the season, but they roared back and scored a ton of points in that one and it's basically been smooth sailing ever since. Dede Westbrook's health really turned the offense around and turned it into the powerhouse it became. OU fans were pretty despondent after the Texas Tech game, but that game proved just how good the offense really is—it's capable of picking up for the defense even on its worst night. It took a few weeks, but I think OU fans are pleased with how the team turned things around and avoided another crash-and-burn scenario like what happened in 2014.

2) Was there any particular theme to the two losses that may be something Auburn could exploit?

The common thread between the Houston and Ohio State games was a lack of physicality from the Sooners. That translated into things like missed tackles, pressure on Baker Mayfield, a bottled-up rushing attack—basically, OU got manhandled. Certainly Auburn has the potential to do the same. Oklahoma hasn't played anyone that physical in Big 12 play, though West Virginia may come close, but OU's blowout win in Morgantown was actually pretty flukey.

3) Everyone knows the major players on the Sooners' roster like Mayfield, Westbrook, Mixon, and Perine. Who is one player on offense and defense we don't know about that could have a big impact?

The four guys you mentioned seem to be involved on nearly every offensive play. However, I'd keep an eye on wide receiver Mark Andrews in this one. Andrews is a tight end turned slot receiver who hasn't really lived up to expectations so far, but he's kind of an X factor on this offense. The unit tends to go as he does. Andrews caught 28 passes this season, but 6 of them were touchdowns, and he's a major red zone threat. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, he's a huge target for the smallish Baker Mayfield.

On defense, I'd keep an eye on freshman linebacker Caleb Kelly. Kelly kind of asserted himself into the starting lineup down the stretch, playing the outside spot opposite pass-rusher Obo Okoronkwo in OU's 3-4. He's a five-star recruit out of Fresno who figures to be a big part of OU's future, and Sooners Twitter will definitely explode if he picks up a sack or drops someone in the backfield.

4) What match-up gives you the most confidence for OU?

I'm a lot more worried about Auburn's front seven than its secondary, so I think OU can have real success in the passing game. Even if Auburn commits to stopping Westbrook, the maddening thing about the OU offense is the number of semi-anonymous guys who can burn you on a given play. Even Joe Mixon can catch check down passes out of the backfield for major gains. It's a tough unit to slow down.

5) What match-up gives you the most heartburn for OU?

When Lincoln Riley loses games, it's usually because he gave up on the ground attack. Auburn's recipe for success is to stuff Mixon and Perine at the line of scrimmage and force OU to become predictable. Sometimes OU can win even when it is predictable, but I wouldn't bet on it against a quality opponent like Auburn. Riley will have to keep pounding the rock no matter what.

6) What's your prediction for how this game plays out? Not necessarily final score, just a feel for how you think it will go.

Oklahoma is prone to slow starts after layoffs, and that may be the case again in New Orleans. It's the middle quarters where OU has been especially deadly this season. I think this one might be somewhat close and low-scoring through halftime, with the Sooners adding a couple of quick touchdowns in the third. I have OU winning by about 10.