Auburn coach Gus Malzahn spent some time last weekend watching Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State 38-20 to win the Big 12 title, and there was no doubt about his take on the Sooners.
"Very impressed," Malzahn said. "You're talking about a big-time offense to go with a very good defense. We have a lot of respect for them."
Malzahn will be making an even more extensive evaluation of the seventh-ranked Sooners (10-2) between now and Jan. 2, when his 17th-ranked Tigers (8-4) take them on in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
"It's going to be a huge challenge," Malzahn said. "There's no doubt about that."
The game will be a matchup of classic irresistible force versus immovable object.
The Sooners have the third-highest scoring team in the country (44.7 average) and also rank No. 3 in total offense with their average of 557.3 yards per game.
The Tigers rank No. 5 in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 15.6 points a game, and are No. 20 in total defense. They have limited their foes to 348.4 yards per game.
Led by quarterback Baker Mayfield (305.8), Oklahoma nearly averages that passing (319.8) before adding in another 237.5 yards a game rushing (No. 21).
"The thing that stands out to me is they run the football so well," Malzahn said. "They've got the explosive guys down the field. They've got one of the better quarterbacks in college football.
"It'll be a good challenge. I think that will probably be a key to the game, their offense versus our defense."
Auburn's chances of pulling the upset could very well lie in the health of the team. Injuries hit the Tigers hard down the stretch, sidelining key performers like quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway on offense and free safety Johnathan Ford and cornerback Josh Holsey on defense.
But Malzahn expects his team to benefit from the time between games.
"I feel pretty certain we'll be close to 100 percent," Malzahn said. "We had some key injuries to impact players late in the season that really hurt us."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Sean White should be recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered late in the season. White was hurt against Ole Miss and played just one half against Vanderbilt, but after starting against Georgia, when he re-aggravated the injury, he did not play in the last two games. He is not a deep passing threat but his ability to run the offense could be a key as neither senior Jeremy Johnson nor junior John Franklin III has exactly lit it up in their appearances.
--RB Kamryn Pettway returned for the Iron Bowl after missing the previous two games with a leg injury but rushed for only 17 yards on 12 carries against Alabama. Despite missing three games, he still finished as Auburn's leading rusher with 1,123 yards, an average of 124.8 per game. If he is healthy, Oklahoma is going to see a different runner from the one who struggled against the Crimson Tide.
--DE Carl Lawson stayed healthy after two injury-plagued seasons, and it showed in his production. He led the Tigers in sacks with 9.0 among his 28 tackles, which means about one in every three of his stops was involved in a sack. He now faces the job of keeping versatile Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield contained.
--SS Tray Mathews, a transfer from Georgia who earned a starting job last year, led Auburn in tackles with 73 stops, had an interception, and was credited with forcing a fumble. He also broke up two passes, one of them in the loss to Alabama in the regular-season finale. He likely will carry a big responsibility in slowing Oklahoma's running game in the bowl as well as containing the Sooners' passing game.