While the season is yet to kickoff for the SEC, Kentucky football already finds itself on the upswing, going from unranked to No. 23 in the latest AP poll. While that’s due in part to Big Ten teams getting dropped because the conference originally wasn’t playing this fall (it announced on Wednesday that it would begin on Oct. 23), the Cats nonetheless have a number next to their name for the first time in nearly two years.
Kentucky finished its previous season on a high note, winning their last four games, capped off with a 37-30 victory over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. The Cats will look to carry that momentum into 2020.
The first opportunity to do just that comes fast, as the Cats head to Jordan-Hare Stadium for a top-25 showdown with No. 8 Auburn.
The Tigers were victorious in last meeting between the schools, defeating Kentucky 30-27 in Lexington back in 2015. In fact, Auburn has won 17 of the last 18 games in the series, with the Cats’ last win against them coming on the road 21-14 in 2009.
Auburn is led by head coach Gus Malzahn, who is entering his eighth year leading the Tigers. He has compiled a record of 62-31 in that time frame, and just led Auburn to a 9-4 season that ended with a loss to Minnesota in the Outback Bowl.
Sophomore Bo Nix is back under center for the Tigers, getting ready to start his second season as the starter. Nix completed 57.6 percent of his passes in 2019, throwing for over 2,500 yards while tossing 16 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Wide receiver Seth Williams is back for his junior season after hauling in 59 receptions with eight touchdowns, the most of any Auburn receiver last season.
The Tigers lost their running back, JaTarvious Whitlow, to the transfer portal during the offseason. Whitlow was starter in each of the past two years, and ran for 763 yards while accumulating 10 touchdowns in 2019. Auburn returns D.J. Williams and Shaun Shivers, who combined for 139 carries (17 less than Whitlow) and 686 yards, and adds the fourth-ranked running back from the 2020 class in Tank Bigsby.
Despite the overall inexperience from the group, the Tiger head coach sounded confident in their abilities when speaking shortly after Whitlow entered the portal.
“I think [running back]’s a position that we’re very deep and we’re very young and talented,” Malzahn said in February, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. “We feel very good about the guys we have.”
On defense, Auburn lost five players to the NFL draft, including its top-two leaders in tackles (Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas) and sacks (top-ten pick Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson).
K.J. Britt is now at the helm on that side of the ball for 2020. The senior linebacker made 37 solo tackles in 2019, ranking third on the team, and will step into a bigger role. Seniors’ Tyrone Truesdell and Big Kat Bryant will look to fill the void from Brown and Davidson’s departure.
The Tigers ranked sixth in the SEC in both total offense and total defense last season. They scored the third most points and allowed the fourth fewest. Kentucky has the defense to match up, as the Cats allowed both fewer total yards and fewer points than Auburn. Whichever offense can get going first may provide the difference.
While the Cats and their fans are optimistic, the worldwide leader in sports is projecting an Auburn victory. ESPN’s FPI currently gives Auburn an 84.9 percent chance of winning the matchup.
Fans can watch UK take on Auburn as they look to start their season with a win over a ranked opponent on Saturday, Sept. 26 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The game will be televised on SEC Network.