By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Gus Malzahn was watching Saturday when Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State 38-20 to win the Big 12 championship.
"Very impressed," said Malzahn, whose Auburn Tigers will face the Sooners in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 2 at 7:30 p.m. "You're talking about a big-time offense to go with a very good defense. We have a lot of respect for them."
Auburn's defense, which held nine opponents to fewer than 20 points this season, ranks fifth in the nation, allowing only 15.6 points per game.
Oklahoma's offense averages nearly three times that total, 44.7, good enough for third in the country.
"It's going to be a huge challenge," Malzahn said. "There's no doubt about that. We have played consistently good defense all year. That was one of our goals coming into this season. Felt like we had a chance to play good defense. Our impact players stayed healthy. Coach (defensive coordinator Kevin) Steele did a super job with our guys. Just played solid all year and we're going to have to play solid again. You're talking about a team that's very impressive on offense."
Oklahoma junior quarterback Baker Mayfield has thrown 35 touchdown passes this season. The Sooners average nearly 320 passing yards per game, 11th in the country. Malzahn says passing proficiency is only part of the Sooners' story.
"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 is making its sixth Sugar Bowl appearance, the Tigers' first in 12 years.
"We'll definitely be motivated," he said. "We're playing one of the top teams in the country. Our team is extremely excited to be playing in a game like the Sugar Bowl. That's a very big deal. Our players understand that. We've got really strong leadership on this team. We'll be ready to play and we'll have to be ready to play."
Malzahn, who is taking Auburn to its third New Year's Day bowl in his four seasons, says Auburn rallied this season after a 1-2 start.
"Very proud of the way our team responded and just came back strong and finished strong. At the very end, had a couple key injuries. We're tickled to death to be playing in the Sugar Bowl. There's no doubt we're going to be extremely motivated."
Malzahn said the Sooners are "traditionally one of the best programs in all of college football." He's counting on Auburn fans to be present when the Tigers return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time since beating Virginia Tech 16-13 to complete a 13-0 season in 2004.
"I know our fan base is going to be very excited," he said. "It ought to be a good game."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer