Birmingham’s SEC Media Days consists of lots of free food, coaching clichÃ©s, bow ties, and preseason predictions. At the conclusion of the Dr. Pepper buffet, the media voted Auburn as its favorite to win the SEC Championship, but to finish second in the SEC West. That impossibility should have been our first hint of pending inaccuracy. Kentucky was picked sixth in the East. That’s below Missouri (third) and South Carolina (fourth); both of whom the Wildcats have since beaten.
On Thursday, Kentucky and Auburn will face off in front of a national viewing audience and over 60,000 screaming, card-carrying members of the BBN. Montgomery Gentry will be in concert. Marlana VanHoose is singing our National Anthem. A mid-October game has turned into the initial act of Lexington’s premier Wildcat extravaganza.
But after the football is kicked off, it’s all about the Xs and Os and Jimmies and Joes.
Let’s take a look:
For the season, Patrick Towles is 96-156 for 1,153 yards. He’s thrown eight touchdowns, six interceptions and rushed for three additional scores. A 61 percent completion percentage is deceiving due to the Florida experiment. That same Gator defense has given several SEC quarterbacks fits. Towles leads the SEC’s top red-zone offense as the Cats have gone 16-for-16 with 12 trips resulting in touchdowns. Also, of UK’s 16 touchdowns, Patrick has directly participated in 11.
Auburn’s quarterback situation is, well, fluid. Jeremy Johnson started the Tigers’ first three games and Sean White has been Auburn’s signal caller for the past two. Combined, the two are 69-of-110 for 769 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
A starter has not been named, though we should know who that will be later today. Rumblings from the plains is that Jeremy Johnson may get the start. Sean White is capable, but only attempted 10 passes in Auburn’s last outing; two in the second half. Trust seems to be the pressing issue. Here are Malzahn’s options: turning the offense back over to Jeremy Johnson’s and 6 turnovers in 10 quarters maintain status quo with the steadier but less dynamic White.
Inside opponent’s 40 yard line, Sean White is 2-of-7 for 32 yards and no scores. A third option has surfaced. Former JUCO QB Jason Smith, listed as a WR on current roster, has been mentioned as a situational quarterback based upon his experience as a spread option quarterback. We’ll see come Thursday, but expect the unpredicted.
RUNNING BACK | TIGHT END | FULLBACK
Auburn’s running back trio of Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas, and Kerryon Johnson are fast, shifty, and productive. Barber’s 567 yards leads as he’s averaging 111.6 yards per game. The Tigers are the SEC’s fourth-best rushing team and average 190 yards per game.
H-back Kamryn Pettway and tight end Jalen Harris have yet to catch a pass. One note of interest in 2015: Auburn has 13 plays that resulted in 20 or more yards. That’s last in the conference. The 13th ranked team has 22.
The Boom-less Cats struggled against EKU. JoJo Kemp and Mikel Horton were all too often stuffed at the line of scrimmage and forced to bounce outside. UK is currently ranked 13th in the league by averaging 135 yards per contest.
Tight end CJ Conrad has caught three passes for 55 yards. Taco Meat Collins has proven to be quite the find. After missing the past six quarters, Boom will be hungry. With Auburn surrendering over 200 rush yards per game, expect the Cats to test that theory early and often. Establishing and maintaining the run are mandatory.
The SEC’s 12th ranked offense has struggled in the pass game but mostly due to QB ineptitude. However, on the ground, the Tiger offensive linemen are physical and talented. On the season, AU has given up nine sacks. The offensive line is led by its two tackles: Shon Coleman and Avery Young.
Kentucky has given up 16 quarterback sacks. The ground game has also faltered at times. It has also has provided explosion plays and game sealing drives. This group is young, battling injuries, and settling in on a rotation. One constant, center Jon Toth has remained solid. Expect a better group performance on Thursday.
Dorian Baker is a matchup nightmare. Blake Bone’s clutch catches extended UK’s drives in its late win over the Colonels. Jeff Badet and Garrett Johnson have both thrilled. The before mentioned WR’s all have double digit catches for the season. Alexander Montgomery will play more snaps and we can’t forget the veteran Ryan Timmons. UK WR corps has totaled seven TD catches.
Two of Auburns top five pass catchers are receivers. That is, without All SEC performer and recently dismissed Duke Williams. Ricardo Louis leads with 19 grabs, Melvin Ray has only nine. The duo has three touchdown catches, collectively. That number ranks low nationally as well in the SEC. Remember that stat on Thursday.
Recruiting star wise, Kentucky shouldn’t be in the same conversation with Auburn. However, on the field production favors UK. Corey Johnson has dominated in his last two performances. Farrington Huguennin’s been steady along with Melvin Lewis. Regie Meant returns after missing time due to injury. Auburn’s tempo could test this group’s resolve and stamina. Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh will be facing his alma mater. I’d say his meeting room has been heated while awaiting Thursday’s game.
Auburn is dead last in rushing defense giving up 209.6 yards per game. I will give it a half mulligan since it faced Leonard Fournette. As for total defense, the Tigers are 12th overall. Inconsistency at defensive tackle and the unfortunate loss of Carl Lawson are common reasons provided. Cassanova McKinzey, a former linebacker, has been moved to defensive end, in hopes of improving sacks and pressures. In addition to its run defense woes, Auburn has only produced seven QB sacks. Pattern. The line is led by Montravious Adams, Devonte Lambert, and Dontavious Russell. Auburn did sign 2015’s No. 1 ranked prospect, defensive end Byron Cowart.
Josh Forrest is one of the league’s best. Ryan Flannigan has returned from injury and provided physicality and speed. Outside linebackers Jason Hatcher and Denzil Ware appear more confident, active, and disruptive. The old man of the group, Jabari Johnson is steady. For Kentucky to win, this group of five will have to play its best game of the season. Period.
Two of Auburn’s top five tacklers are linebackers: Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzey, who is now playing rush end. Three of the top five are defensive backs. AU is the conference’s worst team on third down. Opponents are successfully converting 47.1 percent on third down. Kris Frost is a cerebral leader of the defense and is joined by Justin Garrett.
Prior to National Signing Day, UK and AU swapped defensive backs. Chris Westry was originally committed to Auburn, but signed with Kentucky. Jeremiah Dinson was a Wildcat commit, but inked with the Tigers. I’d expect Chris Westry to play with an extra bounce in his step. Safeties AJ Stamps and Marcus McWilson will play key roles, mainly during run support.
Auburn lost five defensive backs in the offseason. Troubling. It did replace with youth and other means, but was an expected weakness going into 2015. AU has played better than expectation, but could be due to opponent’s rushing success. Jonathon Ford, Trey Matthews and Jonathon Jones are top five team tacklers. Former Wildcat commit Jeremiah Dinson is listed as the starting Nickel back. Given AU’s defensive backs are amongst the top team tacklers, play action passing will be critical. However, if the run is not established, PAP is useless.
AU is second in the SEC is kick returns averaging 31.1 yard per. Jonathon Ford averages 33.5 yards alone. Punter Kevin Phillips is averaging 44.3 yards per punt.
Given AU’s kickoff return numbers, Austin MacGinnis health is a major concern. Landon Foster’s consistency has varied. Sihiem King and Ryan Timmons have yet to return a kick/punt for a score but both have contributed with key plays at critical moments.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
Through five games, Auburn’s collection of recruiting stars and preseason accolades have not matched production. Underachieving for the better part of 2015, I expect to see a motivated team playing with its season on the line. AU’s next four opponents are: @Arkansas, Ole Miss, @Texas A&M, and Georgia. Quite the stretch. Unless somehow the Tigers found their groove in the bye week, a loss in Lexington could mean a losing season. A win, and 4-2 going into that stretch becomes manageable. In regards to Gus Malzahn, expect the unexpected. He will throw the playbook at DJ Eliot. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp will do the same. To say that this game is a MUST WIN would be a tremendous understatement.
For Kentucky, a 5-1 start would match last year’s result. However, if it does win on Thursday, UK would have three SEC wins: South Carolina, Missouri, and Auburn with winnable games in the back end of the schedule. So, 2015’s version of 5-1 would feel much different than its predecessor. Wildcat effort or lack thereof against EKU is too fresh for a portion of the BBN to get overly excited. However, I feel the prior game’s result will give the Cats an edge. As usual, as Patrick Towles goes, so will the Cats. However, against Auburn’s propensity in the run game and it read option offense, the more accurate assessment would be, “as the defensive front seven goes, so will the Wildcats.” A quick Kentucky start would force AU into certain passing situations. That would be advantage Kentucky.
Expect a wild one on Thursday. One way or the other, the five-game streak of winning/losing by eight or less points will be broken on Thursday.