AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson knows where the attention is going in the buildup to the Sugar Bowl.
The Tigers’ resurgent defense will take on the No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners’ star-studded offense, which is led by Heisman finalists Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook. That matchup attracts most of the buzz for the Jan. 2 showdown in New Orleans, and Johnson is fine with that.
“We let their offense and our defense have all the talk,” Johnson said Monday, following Auburn’s fifth bowl practice. “But we know what we have to do. If we don’t score points, we won’t win. We’ve proven that through the whole year, so we know what we have to do.”
Outside of the news that starting quarterback Sean White will make his return from injury — and the rest of Auburn’s backfield will be close to 100 percent healthy — Auburn’s offense isn’t getting that much press in the weeks leading up to the Sugar Bowl.
But Auburn’s offense vs. Oklahoma’s defense should be the matchup that defines the SEC vs. Big 12 showcase. Auburn’s defense was consistently strong throughout the year, regardless of the opponent’s firepower. The Tigers allowed no more than 30 points in a game all season, giving them the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense.
The Auburn offense suffered from early-season woes and late-season injuries. Auburn scored 19 points in its final two SEC games — losses against rivals Georgia and Alabama. When the Tigers caught fire offensively during a 6-game winning streak, they averaged more than 38 points and 500 yards per game.
That’s the kind of offense that can hang with Oklahoma in the Superdome on Jan. 2.
“Oklahoma’s always been a known team and one of the top teams in the country,” center Austin Golson said. “It’s awesome that we get a chance to play against them and see what we got.”
The gap between Auburn’s defense and Oklahoma’s defense is greater than the gap between the two offenses. Oklahoma ranks No. 57 in the defensive S&P+ metric from Football Outsiders, and it is 84th in yards allowed per play at 5.95. Auburn ranks 7th and 16th in those categories, respectively.
But the Tigers respect the talent the Sooners have on the defensive side of the ball. Oklahoma held its last five opponents of the regular season to fewer than 30 points, including back-to-back wins over ranked opponents Baylor and Oklahoma State.
“Solid on their defense in every level,” left guard Alex Kozan said. “They’ve got really good pass rusher, 31 (Ogbonnia Okoronkwo). Inside they got some good players. But they’re solid, a good defense. It’ll be a good challenge, but I think we’ll be ready to get it going come the Sugar Bowl.”
Oklahoma, which played in the College Football Playoff last season, is experienced on the defensive side of the ball. The Sooners start 9 juniors and seniors on defense, and Mike Stoops is in his 10th year as his brother Bob’s defensive coordinator.
“Defensively, they do a very solid job,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “They know their system very well. What they do, they do very well.”
While the Sooners experienced some letdown performances on the defensive side of the ball this season, they’ve been able to survive in a 10-game winning streak thanks to their high-powered offense.
Johnson believes that puts even more pressure on Auburn’s own offense, which wants a return to its own big-play ways in the Sugar Bowl.
“With an offense like that, you can get away with some things, so we just try to exploit it, just like any other defense in the country,” Johnson said. “But if you come out there and you’re not on your A-game, they’ll get after the quarterback. And the one thing that they do is they hustle to the football, so they’re going to have nine, 10 guys around the football.
“(They’re) opportunistic and they’re looking to get the ball back to their explosive offense. So we just have to keep the ball on our side and not make stupid turnovers, and we’ll be fine.”