The Auburn Tigers open their season Sept. 26 at home against the Kentucky Wildcats. The boys in orange and blue bring a revamped defensive unit and loaded offensive arsenal into 2020. While the Tigers will likely mourn the departures of All-Americans Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson on defense, the Wildcats have some big shoes to fill as well – namely Lynn Bowden Jr., the receiver turned quarterback who led the SEC in rushing last year. The following is a position group v. position group breakdown – straight street fighter style – of which team is better prepared for the start of the 2020 season.
Auburn | Bo Nix – 2019 stats: 2,542 yards, 16 touchdowns; 313 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns; 6 interceptions
Kentucky | The Wildcats return former starter Terry Wilson, who spent 2019 sidelined because of injury, and Troy graduate transfer Sawyer Smith, who has one year of eligibility remaining after injuries also forced him to the bench last year.
Nix returns for his second season with a stacked running back group and experienced wide receivers. No matter who starts for Kentucky, the Wildcat quarterbacks do not possess the upside anywhere close to the level of Nix.
Auburn | After losing their leading rusher from 2018-19 – Boobee Whitlow – the Tigers actually appear better off at the ball carrier position. Sophomore D.J. Williams is now the lead returning rusher from last season and has already earned the trust of the coaching staff after a solid 2019. However, he won’t be able to walk into the starting role. Talented redshirt freshman and freshman runners Mark-Anthony Richards and Tank Bigsby are already turning heads at fall camp, and Shaun Shiver and Harold Joiner both carved out niche roles for themselves last season.
Kentucky | Senior A.J. Rose and sophomores Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke all return after each averaged over five yards per carry in 2019. The Wildcats will most likely rely heavily on the experienced run game in week one – and all season – with the lingering uncertainty at quarterback.
While the Wildcats hold the edge in experience, the Tigers more than make up for that in depth. All of the Tigers’ rushers were 4-star recruits coming out of high school, and all of the Wildcats’ were 3-star. Plus, Auburn has alumni and 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams as the position group’s coach. That counts for something.
Auburn | Seth Williams was rated the fifth best SEC receiver in Pipeline.com’s preseason rankings. Anthony Schwartz is one of the fastest – if not the fastest – pass catchers in all of football and senior Eli Stove returns as the program’s 18th leading reception-getter of all-time. Not to mention the four 4-star recruits the Tigers signed at the position in the 2020 recruiting class.
Kentucky | In their own right, the Wildcats return a receiving core loaded with experience. Senior Josh Ali, juniors Allen Dailey and Clevan Thomas and sophomore Bryce Oliver all played key roles for Kentucky in 2019. Junior Isaiah Epps could provide a much needed deep threat ability as well.
Even with a group as experienced as what Kentucky has, it’s hard to imagine any one of the pass catchers breaking out in 2020 with the unconvincing options at QB. Nix will have an expanded playbook of passing options under new offensive coordinator and barring regression, will upgrade all of the Tigers weapons to coincide with his growth.
Auburn | Junior John Samuel Shenker is the Tigers’ lead returning tight end, finishing with 3 receptions for 21 yards and a touchdown in 2019. However, it’s the new guys who pose the biggest threat for Auburn this season. 6-foot-7 freshman Brendan Frazier is scary big and 300-pound J.J. Pegues has been marketed as an athletic specimen who can run, catch and even pass the ball. The Tigers also have Luke Deal and Tyler Fromm, redshirt freshmen who were highly rated coming out of high school.
Kentucky | Senior Justin Rigg and sophomore Keaton Upshaw return as two of the more dangerous receiving threats on the roster, bringing in 11 catches for 128 yards and 7 catches for 78 yards, respectively.
I mentioned Bo Nix’s expanded playbook under first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris; it’s likely to include a plethora of new play designs featuring the tight ends. Kentucky does have a formidable tight end group but with the Quarterback play likely being a weak spot in the Wildcat offense, it’s hard to envision any of the hybrid pass catchers and blockers having a big season out for the Wildcats in 2020.
Auburn | The Tigers lost four of five starters from the 2019 offensive line. To combat that, Auburn brought in three junior college transfers and signed three more in their 2020 class. There are also a couple guys already on the roster, Brodarious Hamm and Austin Troxell, who are looking to slide into starting roles.
Kentucky | Center Drake Jackson, right guard Luke Fortner, left tackle Landon Young and right tackle Darrian Kennard all return to a unit that helped lead Kentucky to an SEC best 278.8 rushing yards per contest in 2019. The Wildcats also brought in an offensive line JUCO transfer of their own – Jeremy Flax – who should compete for immediate snaps next season.
The Wildcats will lean heavily on the run again this season and look for their established guys to set the tone up front. After having a disappointing rushing attack in 2019, the Tigers have a motley crew of unproven guys up front. There’s reason for optimism, but Kentucky can hang their hats on proven results.
You know how the saying goes, ‘Offense wins games, defense wins championships.’ Well, if this was a championship race, the Tigers are looking like the Jamaican national team heading straight for gold and Kentucky look like a pee-wee team running completely the wrong way. Auburn clearly has the better offense heading into 2020. Stay tuned for the defensive and special teams position breakdowns as the unglamorous side of the ball could swing this week one matchup.