football-fbs flag

John Shinn | The Norman Transcript | December 27, 2016

Oklahoma ready to get physical vs. Auburn in the Sugar Bowl

  Two early losses made Jordan Evans and Oklahoma aware it has to play more physical on defense.

NORMAN, Okla. — Spend two months slugging it out with Big 12 Conference opponents and some tendencies take hold. One of the more interesting aspects of bowl games is finding out whose conference best prepared which teams.

One of the over-ridding thoughts heading into No. 7 Oklahoma's meeting with No. 17 Auburn in the Allstate Sugar Bowl is the culture shock will hit the Sooners hard.

The SEC earned the reputation as college football's best conference over the last decade by winning national championships, sending the most players to the NFL and winning bowl games.

RELATED: Full list of bowl games and results

"It's going to be a physical game," OU linebacker Jordan Evans said. "We know they like to run the ball. They have a lot of capable players. A really good running back, some skill guys that can make things happen. It's going to be a rough game. It's going to be physical. It's going to be a lot of fun."

The Big 12 has quality running backs, but nearly every offense operates from the spread. There are few runs that include a lead blocker. The collisions don't seem as violent. The Sooners' conference earned its reputation as a finesse league.

But this game won't be as foreign as it could have been. The one game OU learned the most from was its last non-conference game: The 45-24 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 17 at Owen Field.

"It helps," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "I think you need to be more physical with teams like this. Our game plan wasn't what it needed to be, obviously, against Ohio State. We kind of just basically leaned on our best 11 players at that time. That not necessarily isn't the case when you play a team that physical. Auburn's going to present that physicality that you're going to see from guys like Ohio State. We've learned to play bigger."

There's one spot the underlines the defensive changes OU gradually made in the nine games between its meeting with the Buckeyes and OU's 38-20 victory over Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale.

RELATED: Bowl predictions for every game

Will Johnson, a defensive back in size and skill — played outside linebacker against the Buckeyes. He made seven tackles, including one for a loss. It was a bruising game and Johnson struggled to recover from it. He played in just seven games this season and will miss the Sugar Bowl due to a late-season concussion.

OU left that game knowing Johnson wasn't an option against power running teams. Getting freshman outside linebacker Caleb Kelly ready to play became a priority. He started five of the nine Big 12 games, making 24 tackles.

But this game will show how much Kelly has matured.

"He's just grown. He's a guy that we look to his leadership and his consistency and what he does day in and day not," Stoops said of the freshman linebacker. He's a very intellectual person and he's able to analyze his game and figure out where he needs to develop. I think he'll do that and he's already working on it. I think the sky's the limit for him as a player. He is very multiple in what he can do. He has great range. As he physically develops, he'll keep getting better."

It's one thing to chase around some slot receivers and rush the quarterback. When you have to take on a 240-pound fullback or tight end at the line of scrimmage and still make a tackle, it's big-boy football.

Ohio State overwhelmed the Sooners playing in that manner in September. Some changes occurred because of that game. Implementing Kelly allowed OU to bulk up its front seven. The Sugar Bowl will show whether this team is better prepared for the physical challenge.

This article is written by John Shinn from The Norman Transcript, Okla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.