The Kentucky Wildcats are traveling to the Plains of Alabama to take on the 8th ranked Auburn Tigers. What once seemed like an impossibility, actual football will be played on Saturday. I like the matchup for the Cats. Here are some specific goals that will impact this weekend’s outcome.
- The Big Blue Wall has gotten the preseason respect that it deserves. On Saturday, Drake Jackson and company must work up to the second level and get their hands on the linebackers. Auburn is replacing two NFL Draft selections along the defensive line including a generational player in Derrick Brown. The Tiger linebacker corps is arguably the best in the SEC led by All-Conference linebacker K.J. Britt and rising star Owen Pappoe. A productive run game is counting on UK’s ability to block the Tigers on the second level. If it does so, Kentucky will need to run for over 200 yards.
- Terry Wilson’s return is much anticipated by the Big Blue Nation. 12-3 as a starter, Wilson will need to complete 60-65% of his passes on Saturday. By doing so, UK will thwart Auburn from loading the box to stop the run. Furthermore, the Wildcats must win 1-on-1 battles from its wide receiver position. AU is replacing four starters in its secondary. Testing that group early and having success will open running lanes for its potent rushing attack.
- By the offensive line getting up to the second level, UK has to prevent All-SEC linebacker K.J. Britt from registering 10+ tackles. In addition to Britt, UK will have to keep linebacker Owen Pappoe from racking up “Havoc” stats (Tackles for Loss, QB Sacks, Forced Fumbles). Pappoe is a rising star in the SEC and is poised for a breakout season.
- Much like you’ll read later on defense, Kentucky needs to win 1st down. Getting behind the chains early in a series will allow defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to dial up blitzes. An old football phrase is applicable here: “Keep the Auburn defense on its heels.”
- Keep QB Bo Nix in the pocket. Nix completed just 56.7% of his passes a year ago. He’s at his best outside the pocket where he can be creative and extend plays. The Tigers ranked 8th in the SEC in passing offense in 2019 after averaging 213 yards per game. Auburn is talented at the wide receiver position and will be one of the best collections that the Cats will face in 2020. Keeping Nix in the pocket will allow Kentucky’s defensive backs to focus on defending that elite group of pass catchers without being forced to come up to play the QB run. As Nix goes, so do the Auburn Tigers.
- Don’t bite on the shiny lures. Auburn’s offense is comparable to bass fishing. Lots of shiny lures thrown in the water in order to get the big one to bite. Under Gus Malzahn, the Tigers have traditionally relied on misdirection, motions, and other trickery to mask a physical rushing attack. Kentucky defenders must stay assignment sound, maintain gap integrity, and not get tricked into over-committing.
- Be ready for tempo. Again, this is a Malzahn trademark. Chad Morris is the new offensive coordinator, but is also a fan of fast-paced football. The Wildcats must be able to communicate and manage substitutions when Auburn goes fast. This especially applies to 3rd/4th down and short when the Tigers have traditionally used a “Sugar Huddle” prior to a quarterback sneak.
- Win 1st down. If Auburn is successful on 1st down its tempo is increased which will prevent UK from substituting personnel. See paragraph above.
- Be clean on special teams. PAT and field goals will rely on a new snapper and holder. Execution may seem simple, but Saturday will be their first game action. UK also must not have any botched punt or kickoff returns. Special teams are critical in early games.
It goes without saying that winning the turnover margin will be vital. Same can be said about winning 1st downs on both sides of the football. Kentucky will need to be itself on Saturday. That means a physical rushing attack, playing sound defense, and battling like an underdog.