The much-anticipated kick off for the 2020 SEC season begins on Saturday with an intriguing showdown between Kentucky and Auburn. The Wildcats have won 18 games over the last two years and enter the 2020 season as a sleeper team to watch in the East behind Georgia and Florida. The Tigers have won 62 games under coach Gus Malzahn but enter the year with major question marks on both sides of the ball and likely looking up at Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in the battle to win the SEC West.
Mark Stoops has Kentucky on solid ground entering the 2020 season. The Wildcats have finished .500 or better in three out of the last four years in SEC play and went 10-3 overall in 2018. Last year’s team scrapped its way to eight victories despite an injury to quarterback Terry Wilson and the move of receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. under center. Bowden is gone, but Kentucky returns most of its core from last season. The defense brings back seven starters, while the offense returns eight, including four along one of the best lines in college football.
Auburn might be the SEC West’s biggest wild-card team in 2020. Malzahn’s team closed out the regular season by beating Alabama on Nov. 30 but turned in a disappointing performance in a loss to Minnesota in the Outback Bowl. The West is college football’s toughest division, and the Tigers are going to have their hands full trying to book a trip to Atlanta in December for the conference title game. The Tigers return just seven starters and must replace a good chunk of talent on both lines of scrimmage.
These two teams have not met since 2015 and have played just two times since ’10. Auburn holds a 26-6-1 series edge over Kentucky. The Wildcats have just one victory (2009) at Auburn since 1962.
Kentucky at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -7.5
When Kentucky Has the Ball
The unquestioned strength of Kentucky’s offense is a line that returns four starters, including preseason Athlon Sports first-team All-SEC picks in center Drake Jackson and guard Darian Kinnard. Once quarterback Terry Wilson was lost for the season due to a knee injury and was replaced by converted receiver Lynn Bowden Jr., the Wildcats leaned on the line and ground game to carry the offense. The line paved the way for Kentucky’s offense to average 278.8 rushing yards a game — the second-highest total for a single season in program history.
The bad news: Bowden departed for the NFL and was drafted by the Raiders before being shipped to the Dolphins prior to the season opener. However, coordinator Eddie Gran still has plenty of options to deploy on the ground. Asim Rose (826 yards) led Kentucky running backs in yardage last fall and is joined by Kavosiey Smoke (616), Christopher Rodriguez (533), Travis Tisdale (57), and promising freshman JuTahn McClain. The offensive line and deep stable of running backs are clearly the strength of Gran’s offense for 2020 and will be tested right away against Auburn’s defensive front. The Tigers held teams to just 3.5 yards per carry and surrendered just 10 rushing scores all of 2019. This unit is undergoing some changes, as Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe have departed from last year’s group. The cupboard isn’t bare for coordinator Kevin Steele. End Big Kat Bryant and tackle Tyrone Truesdell are preseason All-SEC candidates, with a handful of talented underclassmen poised to push their way into the rotation. The linebacker unit is one of the best in college football and helps to anchor a defense that held teams to just 19.5 points a game and 4.84 yards a snap in 2019.
The matchup in the trenches is clearly a strength on strength battle between the two teams. If Auburn is able to slow down the Kentucky ground game, can Wilson take advantage through the air? The Tigers are breaking in three new starters in the secondary, including a tandem of promising safeties (Jamien Sherwood and Smoke Monday), along with redshirt freshman Jaylin Simpson getting the nod at cornerback. The Wildcats entered 2019 hoping Wilson was poised to take a step forward in his development after passing for 1,889 yards and 11 touchdowns (67.2 percent) in ’18. Wilson’s mobility (547 yards) is an asset for the offense, but Gran and Stoops wanted to see their quarterback take a step forward as a passer. Prior to the season-ending injury, Wilson threw for 360 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 6.9 yards per attempt. With Bowden and Ahmad Wagner departing, the receiving corps needs more plays out of Josh Ali, Allen Dailey, Clevan Thomas, and Isaiah Epps for the passing game to improve.
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When Auburn Has the Ball
Auburn is only one of two teams in the SEC (Texas A&M is the other) that returns a quarterback who started every game in 2019. While that’s a big storyline for ’20, it isn’t the most interesting part. Coach Gus Malzahn plans to hand off play-calling duties to Chad Morris, who arrives on the Plains after working as the Arkansas head coach from 2018-19. Morris also previously worked as the offensive coordinator at Tulsa and Clemson. The Tigers ranked third in the SEC in scoring last fall but averaged only 5.6 yards a snap.
Quarterback Bo Nix was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season and finished with a solid stat line. The Alabama native connected on 57.6 percent of his passes for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns to six picks. However, Nix’s completion percentage dipped to 51.3 on the road and 50.8 against ranked teams. The former five-star recruit needs to take a step forward in his second year as the starter. The hope is working with Morris will allow the sophomore to up his game and for Auburn’s passing attack to expand. The Tigers aren’t hurting for weapons on the outside. Seth Williams is a big play waiting to happen, while Anthony Schwartz (41 catches last year) and Eli Stove (37) are proven targets. Last season’s leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow transferred, but as usual, Auburn isn’t hurting for talent at running back. D.J Williams, Shaun Shivers, Tank Bigsby, and Mark Antony-Richards will each see time in the backfield.
Skill talent and quarterback play should be a strength for Auburn in 2020. However, none of that will matter without improvement along the line of scrimmage. The Tigers averaged only 4.3 yards per rush in SEC play, and the overall performance of this group was up and down in recent years. Center Nick Brahms is the lone returning starter up front, so there could be a transition period for this unit in 2020. Kentucky’s defense will be a tough test right out of the gate. The Wildcats held teams to 19.3 points a game, 4.5 yards per rush, and allowed only six plays of 40-plus yards in 2019. Every level of the defense should be solid in ’20, with the secondary poised to rank among the best in the SEC. Will the Tigers hold up at the line of scrimmage to give Nix time to throw? And how well can Auburn's running game get on track against an experienced Kentucky defense?
This matchup on Saturday might be the most intriguing game of Week 4. Talent isn’t the issue for Auburn, as the defense should continue to rank among the best in the SEC. However, for the Tigers to push for the SEC West title, the offense has to make strides under Morris. Nix is primed to take a step forward in his development — provided the line jells early in the year. Georgia and Florida are the clear front-runners in the East, but Kentucky is a wild-card team and should push to be in the top 25. The Wildcats’ offensive line and ground game should find some success against the Tigers’ revamped front. But this contest could come down to whichever quarterback can make just enough plays through the air in a close game.
Prediction: Auburn 27, Kentucky 24
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