Real college football is finally here. The SEC joins the rest of the conferences in ramping up competition as the Big Ten and PAC-12 have yet to resume play.
What better way to kickoff the Real Week 1 PNP feature than diving into the early portion of the SEC menu.
Kentucky at Auburn
Jordan-Hare Stadium Auburn, AL
The Kentucky Wildcats travel to Jordan-Hare to take on the Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers to kick off SEC’s first game in 2020. This could prove to be the game of the day, as this tilt is just one of two games in the conference where the spread is within double-digits.
What Kentucky Has to Offer
The Wildcats return several key members of a team that won 10 games last year. Gone is Lynn Bowden, back is junior Terry Wilson. It’s a fair trade-off considering Bowden substituted for the quarterback for most of the season when Wilson was out with a knee injury. As great of a weapon Bowden was to this offense, Wilson provides more options for this side of the ball in 2020.
In his career, Wilson has completed 67.7 percent of his attempts on the road. He also has 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions away from Kroger Field. With a rehabilitated knee or not, the junior will have to be monitored for breaking big runs. Wilson has 591 career rushing yards.
Speaking of the rushing attack, one would think Bowden’s loss would greatly diminish Kentucky’s ability to tote the rock. However, the ‘Cats return 4 starters on an offensive line that ranked 18th in adjusted line yards (2.81) last season. The unit was also 11th in sack rate (11.8%) on passing downs. The good news for Wilson is that the center and both tackles make up the majority of what’s returning. Running backs Kavosiey Smoke and Asim Rose tallied 1442 yards on the ground last year for an average of 5.8 per carry in 2019.
On the other side of the ball, Kentucky is full of veterans as well. Bob Stoops’ defense returns most of a secondary that far exceeded expectations a season ago. The unit held opponents to just 9 touchdowns and a completion rate of 57.2 percent. Their 167.8 YPG allowed ranked first in the SEC and second in the nation.
While Calvin Taylor is gone to test the waters of the NFL, two disruptive options return. Linebacker Jamar Watson and defensive end Josh Paschal will lead the defensive front for the Wildcats. Watson made an impact during his junior year with 11.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks in 2019. Paschal is a senior who looks to have a breakout year. After missing most of 2018 with malignant melanoma, Paschal performed well in 2019 by tallying 9.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks. He admittedly wasn’t in top shape to begin last season. It will be interesting to monitor his output in 2020.
What the Tigers Can Do
Auburn is a fairly young team that is missing some big pieces from the defensive unit. They only lost four players to the NFL Draft, but three of those names were huge for the Tigers’ defense. The biggest void for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele remains on the front. The production of All-American Derrick Brown will be hard to replace. Seniors Big Kat Bryant and Tyrone Truesdell will attempt to provide some solace. Redshirt freshman Colby Wooden will be tasked with replacing Brown on the inside.
On offense, Auburn looks interesting. Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix returns with capable weapons. He will have plenty of viable options in the backfield to go along with a receiving unit, that collectively, might be the best in the conference. Juniors Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz will lead this group under a new offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, who caters to receivers.
Williams led Auburn in receiving with 830 yards and 8 TD. The junior committed to an offseason conditioning regimen that enabled him to lose over 10 pounds of fat. He comes into the 2020 season, eyeing 1000 yards, even with a reduction of games.
I don’t know if Auburn has any semblance of thunder anywhere on this team, but Schwartz is lighting regardless. The receiver is also a sprinter for the track team. He has raced his way to 797 receiving yards during his football career. Schwartz averaged 16.2 yards per reception last season, good for 5.5 units better than his 2018 mark.
Bo Nix looks to improve on his efficiency as he will be paired with a shuffling offensive line that only returns one starter. Nix was stellar in his college debut last year. He and Williams connected on a late touchdown for the win against Oregon in the Advocare Classic. But the rest of the season wasn’t as spectacular. Nix completed just 57.6 percent of his attempts as Auburn finished 9-4 and third in the division.
What Goes Down
This game will be won in the trenches. Athletes like Wilson, Williams, and Schwartz will likely still be dynamic at times. But the true battle weighs heavy on the shoulders of the big boys.
Kentucky has a ton of familiarity on both sides of the ball. Look for them to utilize their stellar offensive front early and often. Auburn will miss the disruption of Brown. Holes in the secondary will be exposed early when Wilson is able to dissect the coverage. He will have time to do so when the Wildcats go to the air.
I love Morris as a long-term fix for Malzahn and his offensive woes, but it will take some time for certain groups to get acclimated. The Tigers had to shut down football practice for a week in August due to Covid-positives and contact tracing. Over a dozen players had to miss time in early September. The fluidity of the offensive line won’t help matters going against a very good Kentucky front.
The Auburn defense should be able to bend and not break. Expect a tight one, folks. The SEC will kick things off with a classic. We’re gonna double-dip in this one while munching on everything in sight. Pass the Kavosiey. Give me the touchdown, the insurance (+.5), and the under.
CATS +7.5 (-115) UNDER 49.5 (-110)