According to betting lines, Thursday's Auburn-Kentucky game is more or less considered a toss up - in football. That really tells you all you need to know about the direction and public thought about each team so far this season.
The Wildcats are 4-1 (2-1 SEC) with wins over South Carolina and Missouri. They lost a close game to Florida. They also went to overtime against Eastern Kentucky, in a game similar to Auburn's against Jacksonville State. They are eagerly anticipating a Thursday night game on national television against a team that was picked to win the SEC.
Auburn limps in at 3-2, desperate for an SEC win to get this season back on the rails. They had a bye week to self-analyze and prepare for the stretch run that begins this week.
Kentucky is the school with the more proven, reliable quarterback in Patrick Towles. While the running game isn't statistically impressive, Stanley Williams and Jojo Kemp are capable. Defensively, Mark Stoops has really developed the program and limited each of their three SEC opponents (Florida, Missouri, South Carolina) to 22 points or less.
Auburn has also scored less than 22 points in each of their two SEC games. Similarly, Auburn has struggled to stop the run (especially on the perimeter), while that is what Kentucky often tries to do. The matchup, in Lexington at night, doesn't seem to favor the Tigers.
But it's hard to overlook that Auburn does have a better roster overall. I don't expect Kentucky to blow this Auburn team out, especially since this game seems to be a pivotal one for the direction of the Tigers season. I think the biggest question is whether or not Auburn's offense can manufacture enough points to get a road conference win. 21 points in garbage time against LSU and 9 points against Mississippi State simply aren't enough. Oh, and there were ZERO first half points in each of those games.
Who on this roster will step forward and make impact plays? You can ask that question at the quarterback position, wide receiver (with Duke now gone), and on the defensive line, as well as other positions.
This team seems to be unable to get out of its own way at times, whether it was the play of Jeremy Johnson and the offense in early games, or maddening penalties and red zone failures against Mississippi State, or an inability to put our three non-conference opponents away comfortably. Getting this team to keep playing hard and improving will be a test of this coaching staff's ability, and that task will only get harder if Auburn loses in Lexington. I think a win would go a long way to restoring hope and confidence that the season is not yet lost.
Some keys to the game from my vantage point:
1. Something good needs to happen early - anything. A stop, a score, a big play that culminates in points, a defensive turnover. This team has had no meaningful momentum to start any game since the first half of the Louisville game. I think this team needs to see some success early.
2. Force Kentucky to stop the run - Peyton Barber, Kerryon Johnson and the offensive line (at times) are the strength of this offense to me. Many feel we have abandoned the run too soon. Even if it's not pretty, we can get 2-4 yards on most plays. Obviously you have to be somewhat balanced, but I would love to see our QB's only throw 10-20 times.
3. Keep tinkering with the defense - Having Tre Williams and Tim Irvin back will help. Maybe TJ Davis will be able to play some to help out in the secondary. I really liked Cassanova McKinzy being at defensive end last week, I hope that continues. I believe Muschamp will keep tinkering until he finds combinations he likes. I think we are getting there even though the LSU game was very troublesome.