As we near dawn on another week of SEC football, the Kernel wanted to provide Kentucky fans an in-depth look at this week's opponent: Auburn.
In addition to the Kernel's scouting report, Braden Ramsey turned to the student sports editors of the Auburn Plainsman (Jake Weese and Christian Clemente) for a first-hand account on some of the more pressing questions regarding the game, and season, for the Tigers.
What are Auburn’s expectations for 2020?
Christian: Per usual, the expectations at Auburn are high. This might be somewhat surprising, especially considering there’s 13 new starters on the roster. But while they are new starters, a lot of them come in with a lot of experience rotating in-and-out. That’s one of the great things about a Kevin Steele defense; so many players get involved every year, you never feel like you’re seeing a bunch of new names.
On offense, people’s biggest concern is about the offensive line and replacing four starters. While PFF and other sites rated the Auburn offensive line highly last year, I don’t see a world in which it can get worse in 2020. It felt like they consistently struggled to create holes in the running game, and the only big plays would come from "Boobee" Whitlow making players miss at the line of scrimmage. Bo Nix was consistently running for his life last year. It might be a bit of a learning curve at first, but Auburn has Nick Brahms anchoring down the center position along with grad-transfer Brandon Council, who brings meaningful experience. Someone to look out for is right tackle Brodarious Hamm, who’s been lauded for years and has reportedly impressed in fall camp. Earlier this week, Malzahn called him "potentially the strongest player to ever come through Auburn."
Wrapping back to the expectations, I think Auburn could end up contending for the West, but finishing second feels like a realistic expectation. This does seem like a good year for "chaos Auburn" to come out, with everything so odd and teams like Georgia and Alabama breaking in new quarterbacks. But it feels far-fetched to say the Tigers can win the SEC with so many question marks.
Jake: There’s no denying that this has been one of the most unusual offseasons in recent memory for the entire college football world, with opt-outs, players missing games because of issues with COVID-19 and some conferences playing in the spring and others in the fall. Now facing a 10-game conference-only schedule, most schools’ original expectations for the season have probably drastically changed.
I won’t give a total on wins and losses or even postseason aspirations because things will need to be taken week by week, but will say that Auburn expects to be competitive in the SEC West this season. Not only that but the Tigers will be looking to win against rivals Georgia, LSU and Alabama. Outside of that, I feel like Auburn’s expectations are to stay healthy and safe this season.
How will Bo Nix look against Kentucky’s vaunted secondary?
Christian: That’s a great question and I’m not sure I know the answer. To cater to his strengths and the strengths of the team, expect a lot of short routes and slants over the middle. Any Auburn fans reading that might have to do a double take because slants haven't been a consistent part of an Auburn offense. But this isn’t any Auburn offense: this is a Chad Morris led Auburn offense. Tight ends are going to be involved, slant routes will be common and running backs will be catching passes out of the backfield, something Auburn fans probably never thought they’d see.
When you look at Bo Nix’s freshman season, his struggles really came on the road against LSU and Florida. At home, some of his best performances came in the biggest games against Georgia and Alabama. I think if Auburn sticks to their new game plan, Nix will be fine and able to hold it together. But if the Tigers fall behind early, and he’s forced to make some bigger throws to bring Auburn back in the game, I personally am not sure if he’ll be able to pull it off.
Jake: As Kernel readers know, Kentucky’s secondary is one you need to be cautious of. In 2019, the Wildcats had the second-best passing defense in the nation, allowing an average of 167.8 passing yards per game. Bo Nix faced one team that ranked in the Top 10 last season in ninth-ranked Minnesota. In that game, Nix threw for 176 yards and one passing touchdown. Both players and coaches this offseason have discussed how Chad Morris wants Auburn to pass more and spread the ball around on offense. This will be a good first test for Nix and the new-look offense.
I could see Auburn going with many short-intermediate passes to open up the game and later on trying a few deep passes, but I expect Auburn and Nix to play it safe in the opener with not many chances for Kentucky to turn the ball over.
Who is the favorite to lead the Tigers in carries after Jartavious "Boobee" Whitlow’s transfer?
Christian: It feels like every week there’s a new candidate with hype around them. As of now, the starter on the depth chart is junior Shaun Shivers, who’s been used as a specialist his first two years due to his size (he’s listed at 5-foot-7) and blazing speed. But he’s reportedly worked hard and is ready to take on a starting role. This room, though, is basically the true definition of a committee.
D.J. Williams, who started in place of Whitlow last year due to an injury, will continue to get carries. I’m the most skeptical of Williams and feel while he may be the most experienced back, he’s the least talented. Nonetheless, he’s going to get touches. Blue-chip freshman Tank Bigbsy was the talk of the room heading into fall camp and has impressed, but he’s a freshman, so that may limit his usage.
My personal pick to lead the room - by the end of the season, at least - is Mark-Antony Richards. Richards missed his freshman season due to a leg injury, but is supposedly faster and stronger this year. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and has been compared to Kerryon Johnson. I doubt he leads the team in carries against Kentucky (that will probably be Shivers), but by the end of the year that’s a name to keep an eye on.
Harold Joiner is also in the backfield group. His role remains unclear, but he’s 6-foot-4, 231 pounds and can catch the ball out of the backfield, so he’ll find a way onto the field.
Jake: When Auburn released its depth chart on Tuesday, many might have been surprised to see a clear starter listed: Shaun Shivers.
Shivers has earned a lot of praise from teammates during fall camp and was even named a team captain. I think in the season opener, you will see all the running backs take the field at some point, depending on the situation. But I see Shivers leading the team in snaps. We’ll see if he can hold onto the starting role as the season progresses, but I think for the first game, and maybe even the second one, he will be the starter.
Will Auburn be better off attempting to run or pass on Kentucky’s defense?
Christian: All-in-all, Auburn’s probably better off leaning on the passing game and Bo Nix. This offensive line is going to take some time to mesh, so running quick slant routes and getting the backs moving out of the backfield to catch the ball seems like it’ll be more successful. Kentucky is a strong defense all-around, one I think Auburn fans are severely underestimating. The offense will probably struggle to move the ball.
This is a bit off topic, but that could prove to be an issue for Auburn on special teams. The Tigers still don’t know who their punter will be -- either Aidan Marshall, who left the team after losing the job in 2018, or Oscar Chapman, who moved here from Australia but has only been on campus for a few weeks -- and the Tigers struggled to cover punts last year. That could be one storyline to watch in this game.
Jake: We haven’t seen what Auburn’s offensive line looks like this season, which seems like it has been a question heading into the opener for the last two years. The Tigers are returning just one starter there, but do have transfer Brandon Council, a three-year starter for Akron.
Last year, Auburn ran the ball more than they passed, but now with Morris joining the team and Nix’s year of experience, I feel they might pass more overall. Auburn will be going up against a defensive line that is returning multiple starters and a secondary doing the same thing. The offense might be hard to come by in this one, but I feel like Morris will want to open things up for the run game late and will rely on a lot of short throws early to help Auburn do just that.
With Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson now in the NFL, who will step up on the defensive line to replace them?
Christian: The quick and easy answer for Brown is Tyrone Truesdell. Simply replacing Brown is not happening. He went No. 7 in the NFL Draft for a reason, and Truesdell won’t be able to replace that production. However, the defensive tackle group is deep and filled with talent.
The other defensive tackle starter is Colby Wooden, who kind of came out of nowhere this fall camp after being initially thought of as a buck or defensive end. His consistency and determination got him the job. Listed at 268 pounds, it’ll be interesting to see how he fits in that spot.
Coming off the edge, all eyes are on All-SEC first teamer Big Kat Bryant. I personally think Bryant is more talented than Davidson, but it all comes down to showing that talent on the field as he had just one sack last year. On the other side at buck, Derrick Hall is going into his sophomore season but I think he could be really strong for Auburn off the edge.
Jake: Big Kat Bryant is a guy that I am excited to see what he can do this season. Bryant has talked about wanting to get more sacks this offseason, which might seem like a generic answer, but considering he finished with nine QB hurries on the year and only two sacks, his response makes sense. Replacing Brown and Davidson won’t be easy, but if Bryant takes a step up, he will be tough to stop.
A younger guy on the depth chart that I am excited to see is Colby Wooden. The redshirt freshman was named a starter at defensive tackle for Week 1 over senior Daquan Newkirk, which came as a bit of a surprise.
Which school claims victory in the season opener? What factor will be the difference?
Christian: This is going to be a way, way closer game than Auburn fans may be expecting. Both teams are strong, but have question marks. I personally am going to roll with Auburn, in a close 24-17 victory.
The returning starters on offense are the biggest factors for me. Even though Whitlow is gone, Auburn has Nix, Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, Eli Stove, five talented running backs and a barrage of tight ends excited to get involved in the offense for the first time. While Kentucky has a strong defense I don’t think they can shut down all of those weapons.
If Kentucky takes home the victory, it’s because Terry Wilson and the running backs exploit a young Auburn defense that might not be as ready as people think they are.
Jake: Now we’re getting into the real tough questions!
This is one that I’ve flip-flopped on a lot this week. Auburn’s a talented team, but Kentucky has more returning starters and veterans on both sides of the ball. I keep feeling like that will be a big key if the Wildcats do win. But Auburn does have the home crowd on its side, and even though it won’t be 87,451 fans, it will still have an impact.
Both teams come into this game with offenses looking to work out some kinks as Terry Wilson Jr. returns from injury for the Wildcats and Auburn brings in a new OC and will rely on a mostly new offensive line. Defensively, both teams are very talented. I think I’ll give the edge to Auburn mainly because of the home-field advantage. I really can see this game going either way, though.
Final score: Auburn 28 – Kentucky 24
Jake Weese and Christian Clemente are the sports editors for the Auburn Plainsman, the student newspaper at Auburn University.
To see their piece "Behind Enemy Bylines", featuring the Kernel, click here.