With two and a half weeks until Auburn open the season against Kentucky, the hype for this unusual 2020 campaign is approaching its peak. The Tigers only return five starters from last year’s defense, while the bulk of Kentucky’s defense returns. But they must replace some losses too. A breakdown of the offenses can be found here. The Tigers won four out of five position battles on that side of the ball. Here’s a look at how the defensive breakdown – and special teams – shapes out:
Auburn | Losses: Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.
Replacing these guys up front will be near impossible for the Tigers this season. Instead, they will have to rely on an experienced linebacker corps and secondary that is untested but loaded with potential. The Tigers ranked No. 17 in scoring defense and No. 27 in total defense in 2019. It’s hard to imagine those numbers improving in 2020, but linebacker K.J. Britt and defensive ends Big Kat Bryant and Tyrone Truesdell could be the catalyst to another top-25 campaign. Even so, the youth of the defensive front is enough to provide the usual levels of optimism that comes with each Kevin Steele defense.
Kentucky | While Auburn had the big names in 2019, the Wildcats defense quietly finished No. 20 in the country in total defense and No. 14 in scoring defense. Seven of the top nine tacklers return. Senior defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna anchors the Wildcat defensive line. Sixth year senior Phil Hoskins, Marquan McCall and Josh Paschal surround the tackle and are pass rushing threats who helped UK finish No. 4 in team sacks in the SEC last year. There’s depth there too. Five-star 2020 signing defensive lineman Justin Rodgers will be looking to make an immediate impact.
Auburn | I already alluded to senior K.J. Britt. He could very well be the best middle linebacker in the SEC this year. The guys around him are no scrubs either. Owen Pappoe started every game last season as a true freshman and Zakoby McClain famously returned a 100-yard pick-six for a touchdown in last year’s Iron Bowl. The position is lacking in depth, but there’s a reason Lindy’s Sports ranked the unit the best in the SEC heading into 2020.
Kentucky | DeAndre Square, last year’s leading tackler at linebacker (69) and Jamar Watson, returning sack leader (6.5), lead the way for the Wildcats in 2020. Jamin Davis and Chris Oats are other names to watch, but unless two of the UK linebackers make a big jump in production, they will be the thinnest and least intimidating unit on this defense.
Auburn | The Tigers finished with the No. 7 pass defense in the SEC last season. Now, they have to replace all four full-time starters. The good news is that Smoke Monday, Jamien Sherwood and Christian Tutt were all highly rated recruits who already have a decent amount of experience under their belt. Jordyn Peters and Nehemiah Pritchett provide good depth and the Tigers enlisted help from JUCO corner Marco Domio – who may have the inside track on the No.2 starting cornerback role. This unit will be better than expected but there remains much to be proven.
Kentucky | The Wildcats finished with the No. 1 pass defense in the SEC last season. However, this ranking was certainly boosted by the Wildcats avoiding Joe Burrow and the record breaking LSU offense on their 2019 schedule. Still, the corner combination of Cedric Dort and Brandin Echols returns to provide one of the best 1-2 coverage options in the SEC. Furthermore, safety Yusef Corker led the team in tackles in 2019 and anchors the 2020 secondary. Davonte Johnson – who missed 2019 due to injury – and LSU transfer corner Kelvin Joseph round out the back line and make this UK’s deepest positional unit on defense.
Auburn | The Tigers return junior kicker Anders Carlson, who showed his full potential in last year’s Iron Bowl, going 5-5, including a 50-yarder. They also have a new Australian punter, Oscar Chapman, after fellow Aussie Arryn Siposs left the program early after one season on the Plains – his junior year.
Kentucky | The Wildcats return Ray Guy Award winner Max Duffy at punter. After having troubles in the kicking game all season in 2019, there are still questions, but Chance Poore looks next in line for the job unless walk-on Matt Ruffolo steals the show in fall camp.
The Wildcats win the defensive side of the ball in this matchup – with two of three units edging the Tigers and a tie on special teams. With the Tigers winning four of five positions on offense, that brings the total to: Auburn 5 | Kentucky 3 with special teams looking like an even matchup. If this doesn’t get you ready for Auburn football, I don’t know what will. The seats at Jordan-Hare Stadium will look unusually cavernous without the full 87,451 supporters attending. But come Sept. 26 at 11 a.m., Auburn fans across the country will be glued to their televisions to see how the Tigers start their 2020 season.