I think we can all agree that Kentucky's inconsistency was to be expected when the age and experience of the Wildcats were taken into consideration. Auburn, however, had much higher expectations. The question going around the SEC is which school is the bigger surprise: Auburn or Tennessee?
I think you have to go with Auburn. They opened their season by beating Louisville 31-24 and Jacksonville State 27-20 in overtime. Jacksonville State is about the same for Auburn as EKU is to Kentucky. In their third game, the Tigers had to go to Baton Rouge and face the Bengal Tigers of LSU and they lost 45-21. LSU has to be one of the toughest places to visit. Auburn's next two games were on the plains of Alabama. They lost to Mississippi State 17-9 and beat San Jose State 32-21 at Jordan-Hare. Their record stands at 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC.
Kentucky, meanwhile, stands at 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the SEC, yet Auburn will be favored. Kentucky's inconsistency hasn't brought a lot of respect. For example, in Jeff Sagarin's ratings, Kentucky only stands above Vanderbilt and Charlotte. Even the teams we beat, South Carolina and Missouri rank higher. Unless Kentucky wins on Thursday, Vanderbilt could pass Kentucky in Sagarin's ratings. Some of this could be based on strength of schedule. I've not counted OOC opponents. Here's how our SEC foes rank:
# 13 Georgia (SOS 70)
# 15 Florida (SOS 21)
# 27 Tennessee (SOS 13)
# 32 Louisville (SOS 10)
# 45 Auburn (SOS 16)
# 46 Missouri (SOS 89)
# 58 South Carolina (SOS 11)
# 61 Kentucky (SOS 59)
# 68 Vanderbilt (SOS 14)
I suppose our SOS would've been higher if we lost to South Carolina and Missouri. Then, maybe not since we play Charlotte in a few weeks. If Auburn wins, their SOS will drop, but ours will go up, maybe. If Kentucky wins, don't expect any change from Sagarin.
So, let compare the two teams according to the NCAA stats:
While not overwhelming, Kentucky has better stats for the most part. Auburn has a better ground game and that may be a little surprising for a Gus Malzahn team. Peyton Barber is averaging 111.6 yards per game. Auburn will start one of three quarterbacks. Jeremy Johnson may be the most dangerous on the ground since he averages 14.8 yards per game in the 4 games he's played, but Sean White has started two games and averages 23.5. I'm not going to bother mentioning Patrick Towles' rushing numbers. See why below.
While the battles are won in the trenches, the quarterback is the leader for the whole team because he sets the tone. He obviously can't do it without help, but if he connects with his receivers, the whole team responds with better play. Like I said, Malzahn is considering a third option at QB. Here's who he has to choose from:
Tyler Queen, a freshman from Kennesaw, GA; Tucker Tuberville, a senior transfer from Texas Tech or WR Jason Smith, a JUCO who played QB at Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. You might be advised to click on his name to see his profile which is pretty impressive. So, while it looks like Auburn is in panic mode at QB, Smith may be a sleeper capable of being a game-changer.
That being said, none of the Auburn quarterbacks compare to Patrick Towles, particularly if he plays well.
Another consideration is Auburn's top receiver, Duke Williams, was booted from the team this week, and won't be transferring to Louisville since he's a senior. Check out his profile, if you're interested.You can also find out why he was dismissed over at KSR. Sex wasn't involved, so it might seem mild.
Kentucky, seemingly, also holds the advantage on defense. Auburn's defense has given up an average of 5.21 yards per play. It must be remembered, however, that they've had to try and stop LSU's Leonard Fournette who gained 228 yards on 19 carries and scored on runs of 49, 29 and 1. Kentucky hasn't met that kind of back yet. Will Muschamp hasn't got the Auburn defense where he wants yet, so there is a window of opportunity for Kentucky to beat an SEC West team for the first time since we beat Auburn 21-14 at Auburn in 2009.
Just for what it's worth, the last time Kentucky won three SEC games, we beat South Carolina 21-14 and Georgia 34-27 at home and Vandy 24-13 on the road in 2009. So, we have a chance to match that record in the first half of the season. We've not won four SEC games since 2006, so a win on Thursday set us up to match that record.
There is plenty of incentive for a Wildcat victory. The question, for me, is just how badly this team wants a win.