We are less than 48 hours from kicking off a season I didn’t think would happen a few months ago. After what will go down as one of the more memorable off-seasons of all time in the worst of ways, your Auburn Tigers are ready to take the field this Saturday to kickoff the 2020 season.
Unlike some other well known schools, Auburn was not presented a tasty cupcake to start the year. Instead, they will face a veteran Kentucky squad motivated to prove they belong in the discussion as a legitimate SEC East contender. It’s a showdown between two teams that have built their programs around similar philosophies in recent seasons - run the dang ball and play hard nosed defense.
So what does Auburn need to do to emerge victorious? Some key matchups I am keeping an eye on this Saturday that I believe will prove the difference.
IS AUBURN’S OFFENSIVE LINE READY?
You look across the board and you have to feel pretty good about how Auburn matches up offensively against this Kentucky defense except for one position. That one position though is kind of a big deal...
The talk all off-season has been about Auburn’s offensive line. Who will start? Do they have enough depth? Can they be good enough to give AU a chance? We don’t even have a complete answer to that first question yet with the left tackle battle still ongoing so understandably most eyes this Saturday will be focused on the Tigers front five.
It’s easy to see potential. Brodarious Hamm has been receiving hype since he was a redshirt freshman. Brandon Council has been the talk of the off-season. Nick Brahms insertion into the starting lineup last fall seemed to have a positive impact on the Tigers performance. Tashawn Manning is well respected as a powerful athlete capable of getting movement in the ground game. Alec Jackson possesses special athleticism and Austin Troxell has long been viewed as a future SEC starter for the Tigers.
But those are just names right now. Outside of Brahms, none have proven they can get it done against the toughest defenses in the country on a weekly basis. Kentucky provides a challenging but not insurmountable first test. The Wildcats were actually a mediocre run defense last season ranking in 12th in the SEC in yards per carry allowed. However, they are experienced and nose tackle Quinton Bohanna is a mountain of a man that could make it difficult for the Tigers to generate yards between the tackles.
If this group can simply be ok Saturday I think that would be enough for the Tigers to win in a low scoring affair. Struggle and things could get dicey. But bear with me here for a moment. What if it turns out they are ready to go? That’s not a proposition I’ve seen floated out by really anyone. I suspect there will be pain points but I wouldn’t be shocked if this group surprised folks Saturday especially on the right side of the line. They’ve heard all off-season that they’re the reason to doubt Auburn. Might they be out to prove a point this Saturday?
CAN AUBURN’S DEFENSIVE TACKLES HOLD UP?
The other matchup where Auburn does not appear to hold the edge is on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The Big Blue Wall will be one of the best offensive lines Auburn faces this fall. I put them in the same class as that 2019 Oregon offensive line who had a lot of success early against an Auburn defense that still had Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.
Can guys like Colby Wooden, Jay Hardy, Dre Butler, Daquan Newkirk and Marquis Burks hold their own against one of the best centers in college football? I am more optimistic that they will rise to the challenge than the OL because it’s had not to trust Rodney Garner. But the pathway to victory for the Wildcats is running the durn ball. If they can eat away 4-5 yards a pop then the Tigers will be in for a long day. But if they can’t that might tilt things drastically in Auburn’s favor as it will force UK QB Terry Wilson to beat the Tigers with his arm something I am not sure he’s capable of accomplishing.
DEFENSE MUST STAY DISCIPLINED
Kentucky’s run game will likely be Zone Read heavy and their passing game will likely rely heavily on play action. That means Auburn’s defense, especially this veteran linebacker corps, must stay true to their responsibilities and not get caught cheating trying to make a big play.
These Wildcat backs can break big plays if given the edge and Wilson is a threat with his legs. Ole Miss gashed Auburn pretty good last year despite a limited passing attack, Auburn had no answer for Minnesota’s Outside Zone attack and it’s hard to fully shake that night in Starkville in 2018 from my mind. So it’s far from a certainty the Tigers shut this rushing attack down but I lean towards Auburn eventually winning that exchange.
One small note. I expect Auburn to roll Jamien Sherwood down in the box to help provide more run support and challenge Wilson to make big plays through the air. Don’t be surprised if a bunch of folks are talking about Sherwood following Saturday’s contest.
CAN AUBURN’S OFFENSE GENERATE BIG PLAYS?
This Kentucky secondary is very underrated. They were one of the better pass defenses in the country last year specifically at limiting big plays. Chad Morris has been very vocal about the fact his goal is to make Auburn the most explosive offense in the country. Something will have to give Saturday.
I imagine Morris will protect this offensive line early by trying to get the ball out of Nix’s hand quickly. That could limit the Tigers ability to push the ball down the field but guys like Shaun Shivers and Anthony Schwartz don’t need a huge lane to break a big play. Blocking by Auburn’s tight ends and wide receivers on the outside will be huge this weekend. Don’t be surprised if the Tigers are a little pass heavier than usual out the gate in an attempt to build some confidence for Bo and to get a more numbers friendly box for the run game.
This is where Auburn can really break the game open. Maybe Auburn’s offensive line isn’t a finished product out the gate and maybe there are some serious hiccups early for this offense overall. But if the Tigers can give their playmakers a chance to win 1 on 1 matchups, you could see the Tigers put up 3+ touchdowns despite not operating efficiently for much of the day.