Auburn could prove SEC's point by beating Oklahoma in Sugar Bowl

Auburn's road to the Sugar Bowl (2:12)

ESPN's Ryan McGee looks back at Auburn's 2016 season and their history in the Sugar Bowl. (2:12)

NEW ORLEANS -- SEC teams typically don’t face the skepticism that has confronted Auburn since its selection to represent the conference in Monday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

SEC teams typically don’t enter the game with four losses, though. In fact it has never happened. In a bowl game that dates back to 1935, only one other team -- the ACC's Florida State in 2003 -- came to New Orleans with four losses on its resume.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that Auburn players have faced questions this week that hinted at this general theme: What are you doing here?

“You can’t help what other people think,” Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson said. “The only thing you can say is if the teams want to come to the SEC and play the schedule that we do, they’re more than welcome to do that. I feel that we have the toughest league, and nothing anybody can say can convince me otherwise because I have to play in it year after year.

“Alabama gets all the hype, but from top to bottom, we have a lot of teams in bowls, a lot of teams that are doing very well and we have high standards. So you fall anything short of that, that just gives them more reason to talk about you.”

There has been more than enough talk this season about where the SEC ranks within college football’s hierarchy. Although it has been the sport’s preeminent conference for a decade, the SEC took a clear step backward in 2016.

Sure, Alabama sits atop the polls and could be on pace for its fifth national championship in eight seasons, but the rest of the conference hasn’t had much to brag about. The league's other 13 teams all had at least four losses, and No. 14 Auburn (8-4) is its highest-ranked team behind the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

This is where a game like the Sugar Bowl could come in handy for the conference’s perception. Should Auburn upset an explosive No. 7 Oklahoma team (10-2) that features a pair of Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, the Tigers can validate Johnson’s claim that their mediocre record is a product of a difficult schedule, not a weakened SEC.

“The SEC does think, and most people think, the SEC is the best conference, even though I kind of saw on TV the other day the SEC is like 1-4 [in bowls], so really it’s just trying to get our record back right,” Auburn defensive lineman Montravius Adams said last Friday. “Even though we play against the SEC teams, we still all represent the SEC, so we want to prove that the people that say the SEC’s the best conference, we want to prove them right.”

Since Adams made that comment, SEC teams have since won four of five bowl games to even the conference’s postseason record at 5-5 with three games remaining: the Sugar Bowl, Monday afternoon’s Florida-Iowa meeting in the Outback Bowl and the Jan. 9 rematch between Alabama and Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.

The conference needs to win at least two of them to avoid its first losing record in bowl season since 2002. Maybe it’s silly to base quality assessments on results from postseason exhibitions after the teams have been idle for a month, but a sub-.500 bowl record would further fuel the narrative that the SEC has slipped.

Auburn knows a winning performance against Oklahoma might not silence such criticisms, but it could strengthen the SEC’s case to remain at or near the very top of the heap.

The game also represents Auburn’s final opportunity to prove that it is better than the squarely average record it will carry into Monday night.

The Tigers were a top-10 team as late as Week 10, but injuries to key players like quarterback Sean White and running backs Johnson and Kam Pettway turned a powerful Auburn offense into a disaster.

They dropped their final two games against Power 5 opposition -- Georgia and Alabama -- in embarrassing fashion. In both games, they achieved a total of seven first downs. In a 13-7 loss to Georgia, they mustered just 164 yards of offense. Two weeks later, they totaled 182 yards in a 30-12 loss to the Tide.

After a month to heal physically and mentally, the Tigers say they’re as close to 100 percent as they have been in months. There will be no excuses if their offense lays another egg against Oklahoma.

“We really feel like when we’re healthy, we’re a different team,” White said. “Pettway wasn’t healthy the last couple games of the season, I didn’t feel healthy the last couple games of the season, and I think we’re both back and ready to go, along with some other people. We feel like when we’re 100 percent, we’re a pretty tough team to beat.”

Monday is their chance to prove it. Auburn’s -- and to some degree, the SEC’s -- reputation is at stake.