Although College Gameday may be headed to the FSU-Miami rivalry clash, the true game of the week lies a little northwest, at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the #8 Auburn Tigers will play host to the #23 Kentucky Wildcats. This game is truly an intriguing battle, as both teams enter with a lot of unknowns. For Kentucky, they’ll be seeing the first of quarterback Terry Wilson since he suffered a season-ending injury in Kentucky’s second game last season. Will he spark a Kentucky offense that has been mediocre at best over much of the past decade? For Auburn, they lost stud defensive tackle Derrick Brown to the draft, but they return a lot of talent, and they’ll be anxious to see if Bo Nix’s promising true freshman campaign translates into a strong sophomore season.
History of the Matchup
Auburn has absolutely dominated this series, leading Kentucky 26-6 all-time, with a tie mixed in. The two teams haven’t played since 2015, when the Tigers took down Kentucky 30-27 in Lexington. Auburn has won 17 of the past 18 clashes with the Wildcats, going back to 1967. Traditionally, if Auburn gets any kind of offense, they have little issue with Kentucky – they are 21-0 all-time when they score more than 14 points against the Wildcats. As for Kentucky, they’ve only scored 20+ points seven times against Auburn, eclipsing the 30-point mark just once.
Auburn Offense vs. Kentucky Defense
As mentioned above, when Auburn finds a way to score points against Kentucky, they are traditionally very successful. They’ll be facing a difficult defense that finished 14th in the nation at 19.3 points allowed per game. Bo Nix is clearly the X-Factor here for Auburn, as his dual-threat abilities will be called upon to handle Kentucky’s elite pass defense. Auburn was 5-0 when Nix completed 65% of his passes, so efficiency will be the key against this stiff defense. If I’m Kentucky, my early focus is on stopping the Auburn ground game – forcing Nix to become one-dimensional will be key if Kentucky is to have a shot in this one. The Tigers have bruising freshman running back in Cartavious Bigsby, and if he can be effective running between the tackles, Nix can generate a passing attack off of play-action.
For Kentucky, they return seven of their top nine tacklers from 2019, a year in which they topped the SEC in passing defense. Their secondary core of Brandin Echols and Cedrick Dort, along with safety and leading tackler Yusef Corker, gives the safety position some star-level talent. The X-factor for Kentucky, as mentioned above, will be stopping the run. If they do that early, they’re daring Nix to beat them where they’re best, which is all you can ask for as a road underdog. The pass rush figures to be strong, but if Kentucky can get their big bruisers- 367-pound Quinton Bohanna being the anchor at nose tackle – into the backfield, then Auburn’s going to be facing an uphill battle to reach the end zone.
Kentucky Offense vs. Auburn Defense
This one may very well come down to Terry Wilson, who might have benefited the most from the delayed start to the season, as he was able to ramp himself up to full speed. If he comes back at 100%, he will give Kentucky a tough weapon on offense. However, the argument can be made that Wilson is far too inconsistent to be relied upon. In his full season as the starter in 2018, Wilson went through a five-game stretch where Kentucky couldn’t score more than 17 points, and overall, Wilson threw 11 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. Wilson not only needs to be back at 100%, he needs to play at prime Terry Wilson level from the get-go, without suffering from those bouts of inconsistency.
Beyond Wilson, Kentucky has a pretty solid ground game, led by Asmir Rose, who ran for 826 yards last season. Kavosiey Smoke and Christian Rodriguez will complement Rose after combining for 12 touchdowns last season, giving Kentucky a set of viable weapons in the running game. However, Kentucky is full of question marks in their receiving corps, where their top returning pass-catcher racked up just 233 yards last season. That, combined with Wilson’s shaky resume as a passer, does not offer a lot of hope for Kentucky’s air game. As a road underdog, the likelihood that Kentucky can win this with just their backfield is unlikely, so the Wildcats will need to find a way to get things going aerially.
Defensively for Auburn, they’ll lean on linebacker K.J. Britt to lead the charge against Kentucky. Britt forced two fumbles last year and recorded ten tackles for loss. He can be a quarterback spy of sorts for the Tigers, stopping any kind of short passing game or extended quarterback scrambles, if he plays effectively. Kentucky loves their smoke-and-mirror type of offense, and if Britt can be an intelligent leader for the Auburn defense, they’ll force Kentucky to get their passing game going, which is not Kentucky’s strength. In the secondary, Roger McCreary will be one of the major factors for Auburn, as he likely steps into a starting role after nine pass-breakups and an interception as a reserve last season.
Auburn is 21-0 when scoring more than 14 points against Kentucky. That’s absolutely absurd to me, and I think it’s a mark that the Tigers exceed on Saturday. I’m not confident that this Kentucky offense is versatile enough to put up more than that against Auburn, even if their defense can limit Bo Nix and Co. Auburn has won three straight season openers, the last two against ranked opponents, and I’m putting my trust in the Tigers in what should be a defensive battle.
Auburn 24 Kentucky 13