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GAME PREVIEW AND OPEN THREAD: #8 Auburn vs #23 Kentucky

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FOOTBALL. IS. BACK.

Alabama v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ALERT. ALERT. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. AUBURN FOOTBALL KICKS OFF IN THREE HOURS.

CUE RIC “FANS OUTSIDE THE STADIUM” SMITH.

CUE THE BAND.

CUE THE CHEERLEADERS.

CUE THE TEAM.

We’re actually going to get to enjoy Auburn Tiger football today.

Later on this morning (or afternoon if you’re not in God’s time zone), Auburn opens up year number eight of the Gus Malzahn era with the weirdest situation that anyone could’ve ever imagined. With the COVID-19 storyline dominating literally everything since early March, we’ve been devoid of Tiger athletics until last Friday when women’s soccer came back into the fold. After Auburn took down Tennessee in the last regular season basketball game, everything was canceled. No conference tournaments, no NCAA Tournament, and then baseball got canceled. Then spring football got canceled. Then we got into June without really knowing what was going to happen. Then the Big Ten and PAC-12 decided that they wouldn’t risk everyone’s safety.

The SEC didn’t flinch. It was still time to play. If we were welcoming kids back to campus and having football teams practice, then playing actual games wouldn’t pose any higher threat than normal life at this point. We kept on course, only delaying the start of the regular season three weeks and limiting games to SEC play only. That way, a cohesive testing and quarantine policy would be manageable throughout the entire conference.

Finally, it all came down to the schedule release. With no non-con matchups, we would have to hit spin cycle and find the right mix so that each SEC team can play 10 conference games. Some things stayed the same — for instance, Alabama the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Others didn’t. Auburn gets to take on Georgia in Week 2, so that’ll be a trip. But there’s business to attend to first.

Auburn gets to open the weirdest year in recorded history against Kentucky later today. This won’t be easy, but then again, what kind of fun is easy?

SERIES HISTORY: Auburn leads 26-6-1 all-time (Kentucky has only one victory in the series — 2009 — since 1966).

LAST MEETING: Auburn won 30-27 in Lexington back in 2015, with Peyton Barber scoring twice and Ricardo Louis recording 154 receiving yards.

2019 SEASON: Auburn finished 2019 at 9-4, with key wins over Alabama, Oregon, and Texas A&M. Kentucky recorded an 8-5 mark, with wins over Missouri, Louisville, and Virginia Tech.

KEY RETURNING STARTERS:

  • Auburn: QB Bo Nix (2,542 yards; 57.6%; 16 TDs/6INTs); WR Seth Williams (59 catches; 830 yards; 8 TDs); WR Anthony Schwartz (41 catches, 440 yards, 1 TD); WR Eli Stove (37 catches; 321 yards; 3 TDs); LB K.J. Britt (68 tackles; 10 TFLs; 3.5 sacks); LB Zakoby McClain (55 tackles; 5.5 TFLS; 1 PICK SIX); DE Big Kat Bryant (16 tackles; 1.5 sacks; 1 INT)
  • Kentucky: QB Terry Wilson (12-3 last 15 starts, injured much of 2019); WR Josh Ali (23 catches; 233 yards; 3 TDs); OT Landon Young; LB Chris Oats (46 tackles; 2.5 TFLS)

KEYS FOR AUBURN

  1. Find some success up front early. Last year against Oregon, Auburn took quite some time to wake up and the Ducks pushed the Tigers around on both sides of the ball. In particular, the Auburn defensive line, even with Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, got shoved around for the better part of a half. Kentucky’s got a similarly-skilled line, and they can definitely control the line of scrimmage to gain confidence early on. Offensively, the Tigers have some real talent (albeit young) in the backfield. We’re all itching to see who starts to get the majority of the carries in true Gus style, but maybe we see Shaun Shivers, Tank Bigsby, D.J. Williams, and Mark Antony Richards split about 40 carries. If Auburn can run the ball with its bruisers on the offensive line, while they loosen up the passing game, it might help guys like Brodarious Hamm get more comfortable in pass protection. However, Kentucky will be expecting that, so...
  2. Bo Nix needs to show what he’s learned from Chad Morris in the offseason. Let’s make no bones about it, Chad Morris’ Arkansas tenure isn’t indicative of his offensive prowess. The man is largely responsible for Dabo’s Clemson resurgence, and if Bo Nix can come close to the numbers that Tajh Boyd put up, then we’re in for a special year. Nix was at his best when he didn’t seem to have to think about what he was doing, and just running the offense on instinct. See the Mississippi State game and largely the Iron Bowl. He’s got the receivers to make some real noise this year, and if they stay healthy, I’m confident that he’ll break Dameyune Craig’s single season passing record. Oh, and let him run too. He’s faster than you think.
  3. Don’t let Kentucky dictate anything. The Wildcats want to control the clock. Even when Terry Wilson was healthy, the Cats weren’t exactly the wildest offense you were going to see. They were a run-heavy squad, and they should’ve been with the line they have. Three redshirt seniors up front mean that they’ll come in and try to budge the Auburn front seven. All the Tigers need to do is occupy linemen up front and let the best linebacking corps in the SEC roam and make plays. Britt, McClain, and Owen Pappoe should be able to track down any UK tailback, and the passing game shouldn’t be too much of a threat for an Auburn team breaking in a couple new secondary players.

STRESS-O-METER:

Unfortunately, I personally have no feeling on how much this game is going to make me sweat. I’m just excited to see us play again, but I know the first time we run the same play on three straight downs and punt I’ll turn to the dark liquor. There’s no doubt that this will be sloppy since neither team has had a full offseason of practice.

Seriously, though, Kentucky’s not a bad team. They didn’t really beat anyone of consequence last year, and Auburn won’t be caught unaware by their talent with this being the first game. It may just take a little bit longer than some of us like to get comfortable (and I’m defining comfortable as a lead with 0:00 on the clock).

Still, football is back. It’s back, y’all. War Eagle.