It’s officially year eight for Mark Stoops in Lexington and after the weirdest offseason of all-time it’s time to start what will probably be the weirdest season of all-time. After months of speculation and doubt, the SEC will start their 10-game conference schedule only quest this weekend and it means UK making a trip to the Plains for only the fourth time since 1994 and this time Big Blue Nation won’t be able to make the trip.
There will mainly be only students present at Jordan-Hare Stadium for the 11am local time kickoff as the Wildcats look to get off to a fast start facing a head coach that was brought into the SEC the same year that Stoops made the jump. Expect a physical showdown.
For the third consecutive season we are proud to present our Scouting Report series here at KSR. Every Thursday of game week we will provide you the best preview of the upcoming matchup filled with personnel and schematic breakdowns, gifs, betting trends, historic rundowns and ways UK needs to succeed to win the football game. First up in 2020 is the Auburn Tigers.
Nuts and Bolts
After Tommy Tuberville was fired following the 2008 season, Auburn turned to Iowa State head coach and former Auburn and Texas defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. Many were skeptical about the hire, but he made one big call at offensive coordinator that would help change the program forever.
Gus Malzahn was a legendary high school coach in Arkansas who spent time on the staff at Arkansas and Tulsa thanks to his up-tempo offense. The Hogs unleashed the wildcat offense with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones that caught everyone by storm in 2006. He was brought to the Plains and his persistence on recruiting a junior college quarterback named Cameron Newton changed everything.
You know the rest of the story. Cam Newton puts together the best individual season we’ve seen in this sport’s history and the Tigers run the table to win the national championship in 2010. A couple years later once Chizik is dismissed, Malzahn is brought back after just one season away at Arkansas State. He’s now entering year eight with more ups and downs than The Beast at King’s Island.
Malzahn’s first year it seemed like Auburn was a team of destiny as they made an SEC title run highlighted by the Kick Six before eventually falling to Florida State in the national championship game. The next year would see Auburn go 8-5 against a loaded schedule, but they still put together a top-five offense for the third time in four years under Malzahn.
They haven’t done it since.
As defenses have adjusted to the tempo and gotten more tape on Malzahn’s scheme, his offenses have regressed with none finishing in the top-25 in offensive efficiency. Due to this, Malzahn has had to reinvent himself. There’s been a revolving door at offensive coordinator, but the defense has been superb.
Auburn is fresh off of three consecutive top-10 efficiency finishes on defense as Kevin Steele has received a hefty pay raise for his hard work. The 2017 unit nearly led the Tigers to a national championship and this has become a team that usually wins with defense. Coaching is about adjusting and we’ve seen Malzahn do that. However, he has yet to record less than four losses or finish inside the top-10 since his first season. Occasionally beating Alabama and Georgia has kept the hot seat buzz just far enough away for the coach with a .667 winning percentage and two SEC West titles.
This will be the 34th meeting between the two programs with Auburn owning a healthy 26-6-1 series lead. Saturday will be just the fourth time the schools have met since 2006 and each off those games were decided by one-possession. These two coaches have faced off just once and it ended with Auburn squeaking out a close 30-27 win despite UK owning a 6.45-5.43 yards per play advantage. Red zone turnovers will do that.
Out in the desert, Auburn is a 7.5 point home favorite with a total of 49. That’s a projected final score around 28-20.5. Against the number last season, Kentucky was 9-4 ATS and 3-2-1 as a dog. Auburn was also 9-4 and 6-3 as a favorite. As a small touchdown-plus dog (7-10 points), UK is 5-3-1 ATS the last five seasons with four straight up wins. Auburn is 3-6 ATS as a small touchdown-plus favorite with four straight up losses.
Things have been rocky on this side of the ball since 2015 and that has meant a bunch of play-callers. Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, Troy head coach Chip Lindsey and Malzahn have all called plays in this offense recently. Chad Morris will become the fourth different play-caller in five years. That’s a lot of turnover.
The Tigers are always able to run the ball no matter who is at offensive coordinator or quarterback, but the last two seasons were the first time in Malzahn’s tenure when the Tigers didn’t have a rusher go over 1,000 yards. A handful of times they’ve had two players reach that threshold. Offensive line issues and defenses adjusting have played a big role. Now the Tigers must figure out the passing game and that is Morris’ job.
Another former high school coach, Morris made a name for himself at Clemson running an up-tempo offense and went on to have some success as the head coach at SMU before bombing at Arkansas. Malzahn jumped at the chance to hire his friend just one season after saying giving up play-calling duties was a mistake. Morris has had more success building a pass game and that appears to be a strength of the Auburn club in 2020.
Bo Nix was a monster recruiting win in the class of 2019 as the Tigers secured a commitment from the the five-star legacy recruit that was ranked as the second best quarterback in the class behind Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler. Nix won a heated quarterback battle with Joey Gatewood and was Auburn’s starter for all 13 games despite averaging under seven yards per attempt and experiencing some major growing pains. Morris is hoping to tap into his talent which is delivering the ball with accuracy in the short and intermediate areas within an RPO structure and asking for less deep play-action shots that tend to be Malzahn’s bread-and-butter. He’s got the talent at wideout to make a jump.
Seth Williams is a former blue-chipper who was Nix’s top target as a true sophomore (59 receptions, 830 yards, 8 touchdowns). At 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds, he’s is the prototypical X receiver who will lineup plenty of times in the boundary and try to beat press coverage. Watching him and Kelvin Joseph go at it on Saturday will be fun.
Anthony Schwartz is a bit of a gadget player and speed is the main reason why. The South Florida native was an All-USA sprinter in high school clocking in at 10.15 in the 100 meters and was named the Track and Field athlete of the year. Another blue-chip prospect, Schwartz is a guy Auburn will want to get touches any chance they can because of what he can do with the ball in his hands. The true junior has recorded 63 receptions and logged 38 rushes in his career. He will be used on a ton of motions and you must always recognize where No.1 is at all times.
Eli Stove finishes out the group with 92 career receptions and the redshirt senior will also see carries on jet sweeps and reverses. The wide receiver corps are experienced, talented and returning with their quarterback. If Auburn was ever going to level up their passing game this season would be the time.
The biggest position battle during Auburn’s camp occurred at running back and Shaun Shivers will get the first crack on Saturday. The junior is not your typical Malzahn bell-cow back (5-7, 179 pounds), but could factor into the pass game. After that D.J. Williams should be the first off the bench while expectations are high for true freshman Tank Bigsby who was a top-50 prospect in 2020. They are searching for answers at tailback and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them lean on the pass game early.
The offensive line lost two draft picks to the NFL and the Tigers will only have one player in the lineup who has ever started a game for Auburn. Nick Brahms is a redshirt junior and former top-200 recruit who Auburn needs to be really good right away. Akron transfer Brandon Council gets the call at right guard while two brand new tackles will be broken in along with a new offensive line coach. A lot of questions need to be answered for the Tigers in the trenches.
Kevin Steele was the former Clemson defensive coordinator who Dabo Swinney had to let go after his unit gave up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. Swinney landed Brent Venables and went on to win national championships, but things have worked out for Steele.
After working at Alabama for a couple of seasons, Steele became the defensive coordinator at LSU in 2015 before moving to Auburn the following season. Everything has been gravy since with Auburn producing a top-20 defense each season. However, a rebuild is needed in year five under the coordinator.
The Tigers lost seven starters off last year’s group and most notably top-50 draft picks Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson in addition to all four starters in the secondary.
Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson last year.
103 tackles, 13.5 non-sack TFL, 11.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 3 PBU
Insane amount of production Auburn must replace on their defensive front. That's not even counting losing their top 2 tacklers from the safety position.
— Adam Luckett (@AdamLuckettKSR) September 20, 2020
Auburn has a lot of production to fill and they are searching for answers in this hybrid 4-2-5 scheme. They will be leaning on their inside linebackers to be the backbone of the defense.
In his first year starting at Mike, K.J. Britt was an All-SEC selection and the old school linebacker is a run stuffer extraordinaire. He can struggle to make plays in space, but in the box he’s a bull in a china shop and can single-handedly ruin a running game. His running mate might be more impressive.
Owen Pappoe was a five-star and top-25 recruit in the class of 2019 and he played like it as a true freshman. The Georgia native started all 13 games and recorded 49 tackles. He is the real deal. Zakoby McClain will also split time and he should be considered a third starter. There might not be a better collect of off-ball linebackers in college football.
Big Kat Bryant was a nice recruiting win for Auburn, but they are still waiting for the senior to reach his potential. Due to depth, Bryant has been forced to wait a lot of his career, but they need him to be a star in his senior season after only recording a handful of sacks in his first three years. Inside, Tyrone Truesdell will anchor the defense as the former high-three star recruit will be one of the better interior defensive line players in the SEC.
The nickel position is slowly becoming one of the most valuable positions in college football and many defenses love to come up with unique names for it. Auburn calls it the Star and at the spot Christian Tutt returns after starting 12 games last year. The junior will cover slot receivers, be a force player in run fits and will rush on blitzes. They need production from this spot and Tutt could be in position to become a high profile defender in his third year.
At corner, Roger McCreary is one of the top returning cover guys in the SEC while redshirt freshman Jaylin Simpson will be making his debut on the other side. At safety, Smoke Monday enters his junior season with a third-team preseason All-SEC selection and the former top-200 recruit has plenty of potential.
Special Teams Breakdown
If this thing becomes a placekicking contest, Auburn could have an advantage. Anders Carlson is the younger brother of former Auburn All-American and current Oakland Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson. He has a strong leg shown by his 60.26% touchback rate on kickoffs last year that ranked in the top thirties nationally. He has some accuracy issues (18 of 25) but he can easily strike it from 50-plus.
There is a punting competition going on with the Tigers trying to become more efficient in this part of the game. Either junior Aidan Marshall or true freshman Oscar Chapman from Australia will run out on special teams. Starting tailback Shaun Shivers will return kickoffs while defensive back Christian Tutt is the punt returner. Tutt was specifically dangerous putting up over 13 yards per return last year. UK needs Max Duffy to be on his game.
Keys to Victory
- In what many think will be a potential slugfest against two teams with a defensive identity, getting off to a fast start certainly feels important. We are set from an 11am kick on the Plains with a student only crowd that could be a little slow to get warmed up. Kentucky is not built to comeback from double-digit deficits. Get a lead early and then you can really lean on that offensive line and pass defense. Two things that appear to be UK’s biggest strengths heading into the season.
- Due to Auburn’s new pieces and what Kentucky has returning on offense, you really do have to like the matchup for Eddie Gran’s offense. The Wildcats should have success consistently moving the football, but they need their quarterback to make plays in situational football. Terry Wilson with both his arm and legs must make plays for Kentucky on third down and in the red zone. Do that consistently and a big day could be there for the Wildcats.
- The middle eight (last four minutes of the second quarter, first four minutes of the third quarter) usually tells the tale in matchups of teams that are very close. There is hidden yardage to be had in this area and you can steal a possession if you start the game on defense. Winning the coin toss would help, but whoever wins this portion of the game is going to have a great chance at winning.
- The one big question for Kentucky’s offense is how they are going to create explosives. The line play is great, but the skill talent is what turns a 10-yard gain into a 30-yard splash play. Efficiency wise UK should be fine, but they will need to manufacture chunk plays to win the game. Can they get to five plays of 20-plus yards? Get there and it could be a fun Saturday in the Bluegrass.