What to watch: Auburn vs. Kentucky edition
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops has done a really nice job of turning the Wildcats into a competitive football program at a place where basketball is king. Especially in Stoops’ two most recent seasons, Kentucky has exceeded expectations that anyone outside of Lexington would have had for the team.
In 2018, the Wildcats managed to win 10 games, including victories over Florida and Penn State. Last season, Kentucky only managed eight wins, but the circumstances that the team overcame to earn those victories make the 2019 campaign quite remarkable. By the end of the fifth game last year, the top three quarterbacks on Kentucky’s depth chart were injured and unable to play. So, offensive coordinator (and former Auburn assistant) Eddie Gran completely remade the offense around wide receiver Lynn Bowden, Jr.
Kentucky would go on to win six of their last eight contests while essentially running the wildcat offense the entire time. Bowden has moved on to the NFL, but many of the players responsible for the strong finish to 2019 return in 2020 with the expectation of continuing that success.
Today, we look at three things that are likely to determine the outcome of the game between Auburn and Kentucky on Saturday.
The return of Kentucky QB Terry Wilson
Terry Wilson in 2018 led the Wildcats to their first 10-win season since 1977. That year, he was an effective dual-threat quarterback compiling about 2,300 yards and 15 TDs combined passing and rushing as a sophomore. Coming into 2019, the Wildcats expected big things from their returning starter, but he was unable to have much of an impact on the field because of a torn patellar tendon he suffered in the second game of the year.
Saturday morning in Jordan Hare Stadium is the first time that Wilson will return to game action since that injury versus Eastern Kentucky a little over 380 days ago. One would expect there to be a little bit of rust to knock off and maybe a slight uneasiness that often comes with testing a knee that has recently been injured. Wilson has proven to be a capable quarterback in the past, but how quickly he can adjust back to game speed against a talented Auburn defense is going to be a key factor in Kentucky’s success.
It would be unlikely that Kentucky would ask Wilson to throw the ball more than 30 times against Auburn, even if he was not coming off a major injury. However, since Wilson is returning from injury, you should expect Kentucky to lean on their experienced offensive line (four returning starters) and stable of returning running backs to try to alleviate the pressure of carrying the bulk of offensive production. Kentucky may not ask Wilson to throw it 40 times or attempt 20 rushes, but if the Wildcats are going to have success on offense, Terry Wilson must make clutch plays with his arm and legs on Saturday.
Auburn and the run game
The last time the Tigers took the field it was ugly. The final score says that Auburn lost by seven, but the game was not that close. Minnesota rushed for 215 yards while holding Auburn to only 56 on the ground. There have been a number of suggestions amongst Auburn fans that there was a lack of focus or care about the game. True or not, t is clear that another performance anywhere near that rushing disparity against Kentucky would be disastrous.
Kentucky expressed a good deal of confidence this week that they believe a win in Jordan-Hare is possible. Much of the belief comes from a talented and experienced offensive line that the Wildcats return. The second half of last season, Kentucky went to an overwhelmingly run-heavy offense out of necessity, but gained a great deal of confidence in that aspect of the game along the way.
Kentucky’s returning experience on the offensive line and three tailbacks who all gained at least 500 yards and scored six touchdowns each combined with Auburn losing defensive standouts Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson means that the Tiger defense must be prepared to be tested early and often on the ground.
Conversely, Auburn will start four new players on its offensive line this week. It may be that this new group is a bunch of road graders ready to flatten whatever defense that stands in its way, but expect them to have to prove it before Kentucky sells out to stop the run on defense.
Much of the talk about Auburn’s offense this offseason has been about the passing game (guilty), but the Tigers must create more consistent push in the ground attack this fall to be a great offense. Auburn’s offense needs more run plays that produce big gains than it has gotten in the last two seasons particularly. If opponents like Kentucky have a difficult time slowing down Auburn’s ground game, then that should help open great windows for Bo Nix to attack in the passing game as well.
Offenses always want to score and defenses always want to force turnovers. However, when those things don’t happen, the punt team usually takes the field. How good or bad a team’s punter is usually gets overlooked until it is very obvious one way or another. This week, Auburn fans will see last season’s Ray Guy Award winner (the best punter in college football) Max Duffy for the Kentucky Wildcats.
Auburn on the other hand may very well have two different players get a chance to punt as Aidan Marshall and Oscar Chapman are both listed as starters on the depth chart. Marshall took last season off from football and Chapman was an Australian Rules Football player who will make his debut this week.
This is a position where Kentucky likely has a huge advantage on Saturday. Duffy has proven the ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory, boom moonshot kicks and handle the pressure of the SEC. Even if the Tigers’ punters can’t match Duffy’s production on Saturday, it is key that they not make big mistakes like mishandle snaps or badly mis-hit kicks in crucial spots.
Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @z_m_shaw