Personally, I don't have time to fully catch up on Kentucky's football season and UK fans probably don't have time to read much on CaM, so Will and I exchanged questions and answers to get a sense of how each other's teams are performing. Will does a great job writing about UK football (especially with his advanced stat breakdowns) and about SEC football in general. Give him a follow on Twitter at @awillmarshall.
1. The Wildcats were looking good for the first few games of the season. 3-1 with two conference wins and a close loss to Florida. Then Eastern Kentucky happened. Kentucky did beat the FCS team in overtime (something Auburn is familiar with this year too), but how much, if any, did that game temper expectations for the rest of the season?
I think the answer to that question largely depends on who you ask. Some have chalked it up as a fluke close-call that was the result of UK not taking EKU seriously enough. I think there's some merit to that position given the overwhelming number of key players that are underclassmen on UK's offense. I can see the young players not taking a FCS opponent seriously during game prep, and the roosters coming home to roost on game day. At the same time, an experienced defense did allow 27 points and 363 yards of total offense when it should have been shutting down the FCS offense and buying time for the offense.
For me, it reinforced this UK team, while arguably the best UK team since the 2008-2009 campaign, is still not much better than average. It's a boom-or-bust offense paired with a bend-don't-break defense. That translates to some pretty intense highs when both sides of the ball are clicking, but can also lead to throwing the remote control across the room at times.
If your expectations were for this team to be a 6 win team, I think the EKU game supports that narrative. It's those that were predicting a 8 win season that took the close win the hardest. And a scan of UK message boards the next day showed there were some taking it pretty hard.
2. After the loss of Carl Lawson in the first game of the year, Auburn has had little to no pass rush. How well does Kentucky protect the quarterback? Does Patrick Towles have the arm to pick on a secondary if given time in the pocket?
UK's key offensive weakness is its offensive tackles. The interior is led by a very good center in Jon Toth, and UK is deep - though young - at both guard positions, but the tackles have struggled this year. Senior Jordan Swindle returns from injury this week, but he hasn't been especially impressive this season. He has the lateral quickness of a guard, but he's played tackle out of necessity.
The other tackles are just young and still developing. Kyle Meadows is a redshirt sophomore who didn't see much playing time last season, and he splits reps with true freshman George Asafao-Adjei. They both project to be reliable down the road, but offensive linemen typically need at least three years of seasoning before they can compete against the best SEC pass-rushers. It also hurts that UK is not deep at the tackle position as two of the redshirt freshmen transferred in the off-season. That's less competition in practice which doesn't help in-season improvement either.
Towles definitely has the arm strength to pick on any secondary, but he has struggled with his consistency the last two seasons whether he's throwing with hands in his face or not. He's completed opposite hash Out routes with blitzing defenders barreling down on him, and he's also overthrown wide open receivers on slant routes without any pressure. It's just another odd aspect about this team.
3. Auburn's offense has been decently efficient this season, but it can't find those explosive plays anymore. UK has the opposite problem. Much more explosive than efficient. If you had to choose one or the other, which would it be? Explosive but not efficient, or efficient but not explosive?
Great question. They can both be so frustrating in their own ways. For UK this season, there will be two or three 3-and-outs in a row, and then all of a sudden a 35 yard pass play, linked to a 12 yard quarterback scramble, linked to a running back scampering for 20 yards and a touchdown. It inflicts vertigo.
At the same time, there's something to be said about slowly suffocating your opponents the way Auburn's offense has done this season. Slowly grinding defenses into a bloody pulp is it's own form of enjoyment, but I imagine it feels like a tremendous wasted effort to go on a 7 minute drive to not come up with any points.
I guess at the end of the day I'll stick to the devil I know and side with 30 minutes of remote control conflagration followed by 90 seconds of transcendence.
4. On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats are not giving up many explosive plays. How are they doing that? Is it a scheme thing? A player thing? Probably a combination of the two?
I think it's more player development than scheme. UK is still running a lot of man and pattern-matching coverage with a bevy of blitz packages this year just like it did last year. Mark Stoops and assistant coach Derrick Ansley have done a great job developing this secondary. That's the position Stoops came up coaching, and his tutelage continues to show. They really started cutting into big plays last season, and it's continued into this year as well.
Safety AJ Stamps will get drafted next spring, and his running mate Marcus McWilson has made "the junior leap" and has largely played very well this season. The upperclassmen corners have also steadily improved, and true freshman corner Chris Westry (originally an Auburn commit that flipped to UK after UK corner commit Jeremiah Dinson flipped to Auburn - we essentially traded) has surprised many with how soon he was able to contribute.
I should also mention that inside linebackers Josh Forrest, Khalid Henderson, and Ryan Flannigan are built more to run than to stuff gaps. They have a lot of speed, and do a lot to prevent 4 yard screens and running plays from turning into 10-15 yard plays.
5. Running back Stanley "Boom" Williams is set to return to action against Auburn. What impact do you see him having in this game and for the rest of the season.
I think he'll have a significant impact. Williams is UK's biggest play-maker in the backfield, and probably among all UK's skill players. When he's on the field his dual-nature threatens a defense from being capable to run between the tackles, or catch balls out of the backfield. Will Muschamp will have to keep in mind the varied plays UK can call when he's on the field.
Auburn's rush defense is currently allowing 210 yards per game, and I would think Williams could capitalize, except UK hasn't run the ball well this year. I think he'll get his 100 total yards, but I'm less confident on anything beyond that. For the rest of the season, he'll play a major role in UK getting to a bowl game.
Recruiting aside: Williams was originally committed to Georgia before ultimately landing at UK. He decommitted from Georgia only after they got both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. That tells you what kind of talent he is, and how fortunate UK was that Georgia got two five stars that recruiting cycle.
6. Prediction time: Final score and biggest factor.
The biggest factor is easy for me. UK's defense has to get Auburn's offense off the field, and win on standard downs. If UK can force Auburn into passing situations routinely then UK will win this game. UK has displayed an advantage in its secondary versus Auburn's depleted receiver corps and quarterback issues.
Predicting the outcome I'm less confident about but here's my best shot: I don't see UK's defense being successful on standard downs against Auburn. I've seen nothing to date that makes me think they'll hold Auburn below their 190 yards rushing per game average. I think Auburn will have long drives, squeezing the clock and limiting UK's offensive possessions. Then the boom-or-bust offense will have even fewer opportunities to go "boom." UK's offense has lived on the precipice all season, and this will be a game when they pay for their inconsistency.
Auburn 23 UK 10