War Eagle, everybody! Time now for another preview of an upcoming Auburn football opponent. This week, we take a look at the Kentucky Wildcats, who will visit Auburn on October 17th. This is a must win game for the Tigers. Auburn will likely be 4-2 heading into this contest, and a loss could prove to be disastrous. It’s a pivotal game for Tiger bowl hopes, with LSU, Ole Miss, Furman, Georgia, and Alabama remaining on the schedule. If the Tigers can’t defeat the Wildcats, the odds of upsetting any of the 4 remaining SEC opponents will be low.
Kentucky should be a battle-tested unit by the time they travel to Jordan Hare. After an opening exhibition match against Miami of Ohio, the Wildcats have a week off to tune things up. Then Louisville, Florida, and Alabama visit. The week before playing Auburn, Kentucky must travel to South Carolina. None of those games will be easy! If the Wildcats don’t get consistent quarterback play, they could easily start 1-4. The bottom half of the Wildcats’ schedule is easier, but ends with Georgia and Tennessee. A 1-5 hole may be too deep to dig out of! The loser of the Auburn/Kentucky game will likely be sitting at home for the Holidays, this December.
Under offensive head coach in waiting Joker Phillips, the Wildcats have made strides on offense. The last time Kentucky visited Auburn, their offense could not hold onto the ball, and early turnovers led to a 21-0 Tiger lead before the echoes of the National Anthem had even died out. These days, the Wildcat offense is a threat, with well-coached receivers and backs. Quarterback Mike Hartline struggled in many games, last fall. The junior quarterback is the incumbent, but Kentucky will keep its options open, and Hartline will have to win the starting job again, in fall camp. Kentucky averaged 22.6 points per game last season, but those numbers are deceptive. Against SEC opponents, Kentucky averaged only 17.8. This season, the Wildcats lose wide receiver Dicky Lyons and running back Tony Dixon to the NFL. However, there are plenty of options to replace those two. The move of sophomore quarterback Randall Cobb to wide receiver could pay huge dividends, if Cobb builds on his spring performance.
Defensively, the Wildcats improved last season, giving up 21.4 points per game, but gave up almost 30 a game against SEC opponents. While there’s NFL talent at defensive tackle, linebacker, and in the secondary, defensive end is a huge question mark. No one who has recorded a single collegiate tackle returns at defensive end. The Wildcats were counting on senior Jeremy Jarmon, but Jarmon has been hit with a one year suspension from the NCAA, after testing positive for a banned dietary supplement. Right now, Kentucky has sophomore Chandler Burden, plus a juco transfer, two redshirt freshmen, and one incoming true freshman to choose from. Other than at end, there is talent and depth on the UK defense. Senior tackle Corey Peters is an all-SEC candidate, as is senior linebacker Micah Johnson. Senior corner Trevard Lindley was a 3rd team all-American, last year. Under 1st year defensive coordinator Steve Brown, Kentucky was a lot more aggressive in the box last season, but was prone to giving up big plays. Kentucky will have to be careful against Gus Malzhan’s array of misdirection plays and ball fakes.
On special teams, Kentucky must replace punter Tim Masthay, who averaged a whopping 45.2 yard average. Masthay also averaged 66.9 yards per kickoff, averaging hitting it to the 3 yard line. Derrick Locke and Winston Guy headline a kick return team that averaged a good 26.4 yards per return. Senior kicker Lones Seiber returns, and he’s already the number 2 scorer in school history.
Auburn defensive line vs. UK offensive line: Auburn’s strength starts on the defensive line. The Tigers will put 4 powerful, athletic guys on the field, with some depth. Kentucky counters with a solid, veteran line, with a good bit of depth. Left tackle Zipp Duncan and center Jorge Gonzales, both seniors, bring 39 career starts between them, into the season. Kentucky averages 296 pounds per man, across the front. The key matchup will be in the middle. Gonzales is a monster, and it will be incumbent on tackles Jake Ricks and Mike Blanc not to get blown off the ball. Auburn’s ends will give the Kentucky tackles problems. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. UK backs: Linebacking may the greatest weakness on the Tiger team, and certainly is, on the defense. Juniors Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes are the only Auburn linebackers with significant experience, and neither had a banner year in 2008. Kentucky loses runner Tony Dixon, but senior Alfonso Smith, junior Moncell Allen, and junior Derrick Locke should give the Wildcats plenty of firepower. All three have different styles. Smith’s got the long stride, Allen is a fireplug, and Locke is a burner. Senior fullback John Connor will be a load, at 240 pounds, for the Auburn linebackers. Advantage: Kentucky
Auburn corners vs. UK receivers: Auburn should be solid at corner, with Walter McFadden and Neiko Thorpe holding down the edges. Kentucky returns a plethora of receivers, including senior veteran starter E. J. Adams. The addition of Randall Cobb will make the receivers even more dangerous. Advantage: even.
Auburn safeties vs. UK secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s injury situation at safety will help determine what will happen here. By all accounts Zach Etheridge is doing fine, and is ready to lead the secondary and have a big year. Michael McNeil’s broken leg, and Mike Slade’s injury prognoses aren’t as certain. If Auburn has to rely on a green safety starter, it will be trouble. Kentucky moves their receivers around, so any of the dangerous corps could end up inside working on a safety or linebacker, depending on the play. In addition, Kentucky has a pair of veteran senior tight ends, T. C. Drake and Maurice Grinter, both of whom can run and make catches. Much will depend on the play of junior quarterback Mike Hartline. Hartline put up pedestrian numbers last season (172-311, 1666 yards, 9 TDs and 8 interceptions), and that trend continued into the spring. The 5.3 yard per pass average indicates a preponderance of short passes. And that’s only a 55 percent completion percentage. It’s tough to move the chains with short passes, when you’re only hitting half of them. Depending on an optimistic appraisal of Auburn’s injury situation, it’s Slight Advantage: Kentucky.
Punting: Auburn’s Clinton Durst seems poised and ready to build on his 42.1 yard average punting, a year ago. Kentucky’s returning punter with experience, sophomore Ryan Tydlacka, averaged 37.1 yards a punt last year. That stat is deceiving, though. Tydlacka was used exclusively as a pooch punter, and landed 16 of his 22 punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard line! As the full time punter this spring, Tydlacka was averaging more around the 42 yard range. In coverage in 2008, Auburn held opponents to 7.0 yards per return, while Kentucky’s opponents managed 9.7 yards per return. Auburn returns no punt returners with any experience, while Randall Cobb managed 8.4 yards per return, on 11 punts a year ago. Advantage: even.
Kickoffs: Auburn’s Wes Byrum won the job with a steady performance in spring drills, averaging over 65 yards. It’s not settled who will kick off for the Wildcats. Redshirt freshman Jake Stephens had 3 kickoffs in the spring game, and managed only 55.3 yards per kick. Kentucky was dangerous returning kicks last season. Derrick Locke had 11 returns for a 28.5 yard average, and a 100 yard touchdown. Winston Guy had 10 returns for a 29.1 yard average. Auburn’s most experienced return man is Mario Fannin, who averaged 22.5 yards per return. In coverage, Auburn gave up 21.5 yards per return, Kentucky gave up 20.9. If Kentucky finds a capable kickoff man, which I think they will, it’s Advantage: Kentucky.
Placekicking: While Kentucky senior Lones Seiber is the number two scorer in Kentucky history, he only hit 11 of 19 field goal attempts in 2008, just like Wes Byrum. Seiber even missed two extra points. For his career, Seiber is 38-63, for 60.3 percent. Wes Byrum has hit 27 of 42 in his career, for 64.2 percent. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. UK defensive line: Auburn has a veteran, nasty line returning, averaging 297 pounds per man, as of the spring roster. The least experienced man on the line is right tackle Andrew McCain, but he will be going against an even greener Wildcat defensive end. On the other side, whichever inexperienced end is matched up against Auburn’s Lee Ziemba will be at a huge disadvantage. It’s important for Auburn’s interior guys to have a good day. Senior Kentucky tackle Corey Peters is all-SEC material, and junior Ricky Lumpkin should be pretty good, as well. Both Wildcat tackles are about 295 pounds, so the critical interior line guys should be pretty evenly matched. With the Wildcat end situation, though, this matchup is Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. UK linebackers: This one is a strength vs. strength matchup. Auburn has a combination of power and speed returning at tailback, including senior Ben Tate. Less impressive are the lead blockers, led by Mario Fannin and John Douglas. Senior middle linebacker Micah Johnson is a good one, huge by SEC standards, at 256 pounds, and he can run. Johnson had 93 tackles last season, including 13 for a loss. Junior Sam Maxwell brings experience and size to the weakside spot. If there’s a weakness at linebacker, it’s going to be on the strong side, where the starter is not settled. Kentucky does have the talent to plug the hole, though. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. UK corners: Gone is leading receiver Rod Smith, for Auburn, as well as veterans Robert Dunn and Chris Slaughter. The leaders going into fall camp appear to be Tim Hawthorne, Montez Billings, and Darvin Adams. Signee DeAngelo Benton is reportedly turning heads in summer workouts. Kentucky has some awesome corners returning. Senior Trevard Lindley, a 3rd team all-American, returns after a season with 4 picks and 11 pass breakups. On the other side, sophomore Randall Burden is the incumbent, who improved all year. Junior Paul Warford returns after a redshirt injury year. Warford had 9 pass breakups in 2007. Kentucky has depth even beyond that. Big Advantage: Kentucky.
Auburn secondary receivers and QB vs. UK safeties: Auburn was shaky a year ago at both spots, and didn’t get many answers out of spring drills. Senior tight end Tommy Trott should be solid, and junior Mario Fannin showed flashes in the slot, but quarterback play in the spring was as spotty as ever. Kentucky will be veteran and capable at safety. Ashton Cobb and Calvin Harrison are both seniors with 3 letters apiece. Sophomore Matt Lentz was great this spring, and may start. All 3 safeties are around 210 pounds, over six feet tall, and they all can run. Advantage: Kentucky.
This will be a tough matchup for Auburn, but it is at home, and Auburn should own an advantage on both lines of scrimmage. Kentucky holds an alarming advantage in skill areas, as well as the back seven on defense. Auburn’s defensive line must force mistakes, and Auburn’s offensive line must open running lanes. If it turns into a high-scoring, passing contest, the game favors the veteran Mike Hartline, and his good receiver corps. Auburn must run the ball well, and keep Kentucky on the sideline.
Prediction: Auburn takes advantage of suspect coverage units, and grinds out a tough, 23-16 home victory.