When Ole Miss and Oklahoma State meet in the 82nd Allstate Sugar Bowl on Friday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, there will no lack of individual and team motivation.
Take, for example, Rebels senior linebacker C.J. Alexander. All he has to do is remind himself of his last bowl experience — a 42-3 humiliation at the hands of TCU in the 2014 Peach Bowl.
“It was awful,” Johnson said. “To go to a New Year’s Six bowl and get blown out like that is something you can’t ever forget.
“We’ve used it since then to motivate ourselves. If it doesn’t fire you and your teammates up to do better the next time, you are probably in the wrong sport.”
Or look at it from the point of view of Oklahoma State junior defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah.
To Ogbah, it’s a matter of conference pride, especially in this year of the top nonplayoff teams from the Big 12 and SEC meeting in the Sugar Bowl.
“Everybody says the SEC is so dominant,” Ogbah said. “You turn on ESPN and they don’t say much about the Big 12, except that we don’t play defense.
“We’ve got to show them we’re not a push-around conference. We know we can run as hard and be as physical as they are.”
Ogbah’s conference pride even extended to wishing archrival Oklahoma the best in Thursday’s Orange Bowl CFP semifinal against Clemson.
The motivation extends to the Sugar Bowl organization itself. The bowl outbid the Cotton and Texas bowls for the right to host the SEC and Big 12’s New Year’s Day prime-time game in the two years out of three over the next 11 when the Sugar is not a CFP semifinal and wants to put its best foot forward, especially for the Big 12.
“This is a very, very important year for us,” Sugar Bowl Chief Executive Officer Paul Hoolahan said. “We’ve wanted to make sure that the teams enjoy our hospitality as we always do, but along with our long-standing relationship with the SEC we’ve now established a new one with the Big 12.
“This was an expensive step for us to take, but we felt we had once choice and that was to the prime-time game between teams from two outstanding conferences. As far as we can see, we’re off to a great start.”
It didn’t seem to matter that the pairing of No. 12 Ole Miss (9-3) and No. 16 Oklahoma State (10-2) makes this only the third time in Sugar Bowl history that neither team was ranked in the Top 10.
The game is a sellout and thousands of enthusiastic fans of both schools have filled New Orleans’ hotel rooms and restaurants, no doubt in part because it’s been 70 years since the Cowboys’ only Sugar Bowl appearance and 46 since the Rebels made their last of their nine.
And for a little bit, one or both teams could be in the CFP semis.
Ole Miss rose to No. 3 in the Associated Press rankings after an early-season victory against Alabama but was upset by Florida on Oct. 3. Still, save for a fluke overtime loss to Arkansas, the Rebels would have played for the SEC championship, although another defeat, this one to Memphis, would probably left them outside the top four.
Oklahoma State was 10-0 and No. 6 in the CFP standings before losing to Baylor and Oklahoma in its final two games, not only costing the Cowboys their shot at the national title but the Big 12 title as well.
“There is a disappointment level,” said Cowboys senior quarterback J.W. Walsh, who is expected to share time with sophomore Mason Rudolph on Friday. “But we’ve had a heck of a season and have enjoyed just about every minute of it.
“And now we’re playing in the Sugar Bowl, and the only thing better would be the playoffs.”
Beyond those factors, it could be the last game for several highly regarded juniors who are considering entering the draft.
Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and tackle Laremy Tunsil are rated as the best players — junior or senior — at their positions, as is defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who was suspended for the game after his arrest on drug possession charges last month in Atlanta.
Tight end Evan Engram also is expected to declare as is Ogbah, who is rated a late first-round pick.
“There’s going to be time to decide all about that,” said Treadwell, who missed last year’s Peach Bowl after suffering a late-season broken leg in a game against Auburn. “At the end of the day, the important thing is to be out there trying to help your team win.”
But, said Oklahoma State senior cornerback Michael Hunter, it’s challenges such as going against players like Treadwell that help make bowl game special.
“He’s a big-time player, and we’ve gone against some of the best receivers in the country,” he said. “Ole Miss probably has more sheer athleticism than we do.
“Probably only TCU and Oklahoma in our conference have as much. But this is the Sugar Bowl, so the team you’re playing is supposed to be great.”