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Friday preview: Kentucky

SEIZE HIM!
SEIZE HIM!

What’s at stake: For Auburn, if last week put the miracle-run-to-10-wins-and-an-Iron-Bowl-for-the-West-title dreams pretty much to bed, a loss this week would puncture the whole damn balloon. Those first five weeks suggested strongly that Auburn was ready to see the likes of Ole Miss, Georgia, and LSU eye-to-eye, but a blowout loss followed by a home defeat to a Kentucky team playing without its starting quarterback would suggest just as strongly that those first five weeks were a mirage. True second-tier, New Year’s-bound SEC teams don’t lose to Kentucky at home.

As for the ‘Cats, their schedule-to-date has been so brutal and the schedule upcoming so soft–vs. UL-Monroe, vs. Miss. St., vs. Eastern Kentucky, at Vandy in the four weeks to follow–means that even at 2-4, they’ll still be very much in the bowl hunt. But winning a game as tough as “at Auburn” should set Rich Brooks and Co. up for a five-game run to 7-3, and late-season shots at Georgia and Tennessee could yield the program’s best bowl bid since a trip to the Outback in ’98.

So, yes, I think Auburn has more on the line. But that doesn’t mean Kentucky doesn’t have a ton to gain.

When Auburn has the ball

They really, really ought to get it moving.

Admittedly, last week the Tigers were facing a defense far worse statistically than Kentucky’s and spent three full quarters spinning their wheels. But even after that disaster Auburn ranks well ahead of previous Kentucky opponents Louisville, Alabama, and South Carolina in total offense, and the ‘Cats allowed all three to pass the five-yards-a-play mark.The ‘Cats are already rank in a tie for 10th in the SEC in yards-per-play, and if not for an opening-day matchup with Miami OF OHIO–currently dead last in the country in scoring–they’d likely be the SEC’s worst statistical defense.

Just as intriguing is that Kentucky’s defensive woes are balanced–Florida and Alabama gashed the ‘Cats on the ground (the Gators ran for nearly 7 a carry and totaled 362 yards, in Lexington), but this past weekend Stephen Garcia had his best day in the air by nearly two full yards-per-passing attempt. (Not to mention the 70 percent completion rate or the 3-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio.) This is directly attributable to the loss of All-America corner Trevard Lindley, who Auburn won’t see, either. So if the ‘Cats don’t seem to be especially bad at defending either the run or the pass, they might be newly vulnerable in the air,  and they’ve never been really good at defending either one.

Some of Kentucky’s statistical woes, of course, come from having been forced to play 2/5ths of their games to date against Florida and Alabama, and the ‘Cats actually had dramatically more defensive success against the Tide than Virginia Tech or Arkansas. Still: Auburn had more success on the road against Tennessee’s defense than Florida did at home, so single-game cherry-picks only do so much. If both teams play to the level they’ve established so far this season–and I think a week after coming nowhere close to that level, Auburn’s much more likely to do so this week–Auburn’s going to put some serious yards on the stat sheet and some points on the board. A repeat of last week’s performance by Chris Todd and the Auburn receivers could ruin that prediction, but with Lindley gone, the odds of that happening are even lower.

When Kentucky has the ball

Don’t look at the stats.

Because this is where having Alabama and Florida on the schedule really screws ’em up. Auburn’s offense can kind of compare to the Tide’s and the Gators’ (favorably, even, with Alabama’s) but trying to figure out what Kentucky’s capable of against Auburn by looking at what the ‘Cats accomplished against the top two defenses in the country is silly. So ignore that 88th-in-total-offense thing: it’s worthless.

Because against the human defenses on the schedule, Kentucky’s been OK: 488 yards and 6.1 yards-per-play vs. Miami; 346, 5.7 vs. Louisville;  and 360, 5.2 at Carolina, the ‘Cocks’ second-worst defensive performance of the year. There’s nothing overly explosive here, but the ‘Cats clearly have some capacity to move the ball, and you couldn’t ask them to be more balanced–for the season, they’ve gained 837 rushing yards and 837 pasing yards.

That’ll change tomorrow, of course, with Mike Hartline out and Randall Cobb likely to take a ton of Wildcat or Wildcat-esque snaps at QB. That’s not really good news for Auburn–Cobb has proven himself over the past two years to be one of the most dangerous skill players in the SEC with the ball in his hands, and Kentucky’s senior-laden line has had some success both in the past and this season plowing open holes on the ground–the ‘Cats topped 5 yards a carry vs. Miami and Louisville, and netting 4.3 yards a pop on 47 attempts against a good D like Carolina’s isn’t too shabby, either.

Auburn knows this, and it’s just about the safest bet possible that Roof’s going to stick 8 or 9 in the box and force Kentucky to do something, anything in the air. Much like Tennessee, with Cobb and Derrick Locke at their disposal Kentucky’s probably too stout on the ground to expect Auburn to shut them down completely. But it remains to be seen if Kentucky can sustain drives that way–Tennessee couldn’t, and eventually had to go airborne to get the ball into scoring position. First downs will ebe even more important than usuall–because while it’s possible Morgan Newton and Will Fidler are up to the task of 2nd- or 3rd-and-long, until they prove otherwise those situations look particularly inviting for Auburn.

In short: there’s reason for Auburn fans to worry, but there’s probably a few more reasons for confidence.

When special teams are on the field

What’s sad about running through all the reasons Auburn should be able to win the game down-to-down is knowing that the Tiger’s kickoff coverage could singlehandedly make all of it mute. Derrick Locke currently ranks 9th in the country in kickoff returns, just two spots behind the same Dennis Johnson who ripped Auburn to shreds last week. Squibs or pop-ups are too fraidy-cat for me to suggest Auburn start the game with them … but if we’re up by a couple of scores late in the game? Squib the ever-lovin’ hell out of it, Hull.

Fortunately, Kentucky’s not much in the punting department and, miraculously, they’re even worse at defending kickoffs than Auburn is.  They’ve made a little bit of hay in the punt return game; Durst will need to keep hanging them. Field goal kicker Lones Seiber has struggled in the past but nailed a pair of 49-yarders against Alabama and is 5-of-6 on the year.

All-in-all: if Auburn can exploit Kentucky’s kick coverage for a big return or two of our own, the special teams should break even or even tilt in Auburn’s favor. But that’s a big, big if, and the ‘Cats’ return against our kick coverage is still the kind of mismatch that could decide the game.

Intangible reason for worry

As discussed already, Kentucky’s had it a bit rough, schedule-wise, so far. After the close call in Columbia, I think it’s very fair to say Auburn’s facing a team that’s better than their record and is due for a big win before too much longer.

And how did facing a team with a rough schedule that was better than their record and due for a big win work out for Auburn last week?

Intangible reason for confidence

Home. At night. A week after an embarrassing loss. If Auburn can’t focus enough to put together a solid performance this week, when can they?

Three wishes

1. No turnovers in Auburn’s own territory. As against Tennessee, it’s key to force a team that can’t throw deep to drive the length of the field.

2. Todd completes 60 percent of his passes and connects for one 50-yards-or-longer bomb. It would be nice to put the minor hiccups against Tennessee and the more major hiccups against Arkansas behind us.

3. Two turnovers forced. Auburn’s defense needs to get back to making the big backbreaking play that redeems some of the bending; if you don’t count the gift fumble from Tennessee, they’ve forced just one turnover in two weeks.

Success is / Failure is: A win/ a loss. I’m tempted to suggest that this game isn’t a real success if it’s in still in doubt in final seconds–Kentucky at home, and all–but the ‘Cats proved in Columbia they’re too talented this year to take anything for granted. If Auburn goes to Baton Rouge at 6-1, there shouldn’t be any complaining.

Your bottom line

For the first time since Ball St. (does that one even count?), this is a game in which the intangibles favor Auburn. Which is nice. But even nicer is that the tangibles also favor Auburn, and favor Auburn pretty strongly–their defense shouldn’t be capable of stopping Auburn’s offense consistently, while Auburn’s defense should be capable of stopping their offense on a semi-regular basis.

Of course, the tangibles favored Auburn last Saturday, too, but if it was weird enough for a statistically-questionable defense to stop the Spread Eagle 2.0 once, it’ll be even weirder for it to happen twice in a row. Locke’s returns and Cobb’s running should keep Kentucky in it–I don’t see a blowout–but as Auburn did against other Kentucky-grade teams like Miss. St. and Tennessee, the Tigers should pull away after halftime.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …

Carnac

Auburn 38, Kentucky 24.

Photo via.

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