5 reasons Kentucky will upset No. 8 Auburn
Optimistic? Certainly. Insane? Arguably. But going against the conventional “wisdom” of Charles Barkley, the Kentucky Wildcats, owner of 1 winning SEC season in the past 42 years, losers of 17 of the past 18 gridiron matchups with Auburn, are a phenomenal upset pick in Saturday’s matchup on The Plains.
The Wildcats, underdogs by somewhere between 7.5 and 10.5 points, don’t have history on their side, but there are plenty of reasons to think they can indeed pull a season-opening upset. Here are a few:
1. Offensive line advantage
Football is frequently won and lost in the trenches, and that’s where Kentucky has a significant advantage over the Tigers. Center Nick Brahms is the only returning starter on Auburn’s revamped line that’s adequate but hardly scary. The O-line was ranked 9th in the SEC by Phil Steele. Of course, Kentucky returns 4 starters from a group that paved the way for the SEC’s leading rushing attacks last season. Steele ranked UK’s group 2nd in the conference — behind only Alabama. In Kentucky’s last win at Auburn, in 2009, the Wildcats rushed for 282 yards. They’ve got the personnel to approach that number again.
2. Which Bo Nix will show up?
As our Matt Hinton noted, there are often different variations of Bo Nix. While Auburn is betting on the Nix who completed 65% of his passes with 9 touchdowns against no interceptions (his numbers in Auburn’s games against unranked teams), Kentucky is betting on the Nix who barely completed half of his passes, with 7 touchdowns and 6 interceptions (his numbers in Auburn’s games against ranked teams).
Not only Nix’s stats looked different in those matchups — Auburn scored almost 41 points per game against the unranked foes but just 24 against the ranked ones. Kentucky’s hopeful of getting the lower number … and with good reason.
3. The 2-rushers template
In that 2009 win at Auburn, Kentucky rallied for a 4th-quarter victory on the strength of a gritty defense and a rushing attack that slashed Auburn in different ways. Feature back Derrick Locke had 126 yards on 19 carries, and do-it-all Randall Cobb rushed for 109 yards on 12 carries, including a 61-yard burst from the Wildcat that keyed the winning drive.
Similarly, Kentucky has several options at its disposal Saturday. There’s bully-back Chris Rodriguez, the successor to Benny Snell’s power-back status, speedster Kavosiey Smoke, jack-of-all-trades senior A.J. Rose, or mobile QB Terry Wilson.
Each rushed for over 500 yards in their last season of play (which is a fancy way of remembering that Wilson missed almost the entire 2019 season, but did his running in 2018), and any 2 of the group could play the Locke-and-Cobb role perfectly.
4. An underrated secondary
Kentucky’s 2018 team featured a talented and deep secondary that helped the Wildcats hold opponents to 186 passing yards per game. But pretty much the entire secondary either graduated (Mike Edwards, Chris Westry, Lonnie Johnson) or suffered an injury that caused them to miss 2019 (senior Davonte Robinson). Kentucky plugged in an inexperienced group —and allowed 168 passing yards per game in 2019. Virtually that entire group has returned, and now added LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph. Meanwhile, Auburn’s projected secondary includes only 1 returning starter and a freshman.
5. The Chad Morris factor
Again, to the history books. The 2009 Auburn team was the first for Gene Chizik. They had a brand new offensive coordinator, and despite his credentials, his system absolutely fell apart against Kentucky in the Wildcats’ 21-14 win. That coordinator? Gus Malzahn.
Now, it’s new coordinator Chad Morris, who has been a football albatross since he left Clemson (18-40 at SMU and Arkansas). If Auburn’s offense starts shooting itself in the foot, it could be déjà vu all over again for the Tigers.