On Monday afternoon, I exchanged emails with David Speck (@WarRoomEagle) of SB Nation's Auburn blog College and Magnolia. If you're into X's and O's breakdowns then I highly recommend following David's work as he does a great job (examples). I want to thank David for taking the time to enlighten us on the Auburn Tigers. If you visit College and Magnolia today, you will be able to see my answers to David's questions and my prediction of the game.
Without further ado...
1. I imagine it's been a frustrating season on The Plains. Many thought Gus Malzahn offense + Will Muschamp defense = immediate success, myself included. What're the one or two big things that have prevented more wins so far this year?
I think Malzahn even sold Muschamp on Auburn by promising immediate success. He had the offense. He just needed a defense. But the offense has fallen apart because of the quarterback and the receivers. Jeremy Johnson's confidence plummeted after a three-interception game against Louisville and the promising quarterback we saw in 2013 and 2014 disappeared.
The receivers haven't made things any easier as they can't find someone to stretch the field vertically. Sammie Coates filled that role the last two years, but the remaining wideouts are either built to be possession receivers (Melvin Ray), new to the position (Jason Smith), or MIA, figuratively and literally (Duke Williams). Ricardo Louis has been a bright spot at the position, but he is also part of the jet sweep run game and can only do so much by himself. And the running game can only do so much when there is no real threat of a deep pass.
On defense, it comes down to a defensive line that lost its best player and a young, young, young secondary. Carl Lawson was an All-SEC Freshman defensive end in 2013, but an injury in the spring of 2014 forced to miss a whole season. He was back for the first half of the Louisville game and boy, could you tell, but another injury has sidelined him for at least four and half games and there is no timetable for his return. Without him, this Auburn line gets zero pass rush, and that's not good when the secondary is full of transfers, first-year players, and freshmen. The defensive backs might be good next year or even in the second half of this season, but if opposing quarterbacks can stand in the pocket all afternoon, they don't stand a chance.
2. Auburn has been shuffling quarterbacks this season. Which quarterback gets the starting nod on Thursday night [Note: this answer came on Wednesday afternoon]?
I'll say this. If Malzahn wants to win more than six games this year, Jeremy Johnson has to play. He might have his head right this time around and light up teams as Auburn goes on to win 8 games or so. He might fall right back into being a turnover machine as Auburn only gets 4 wins. Basically, he has a higher ceiling and a lower floor than Sean White.
I think 6 wins is the ceiling with White. He may turn out to be a great player for Auburn in the future, but he's not beating anyone with his arm right now. Then again, he makes plays with his legs, he doesn't turn the ball over, and the offense asks less of him overall, so if Malzahn is just trying to get to a bowl game, he might stick with White.
Personally, I would give Johnson another shot.
3. Auburn broke out the Wildcat package in their last game against San Jose State which bolstered a rushing attack that was already fourth in the SEC,according to the raw stats. Do you think Auburn employs a lot of Wildcat on Thursday?
No, I don't think so. Five or so plays would be about it, mostly in 3rd and short or red zone situations. I don't know that the Wildcat quarterback, Kerryon Johnson, has much of a throwing arm, so the formation is a bit limited as far as what plays can be called. Then again, Jeremy Johnson was always on the field when Auburn used the Wildcat, so, if he gets the nod as the starter over Sean White, we might see more of it. Auburn could then move in and out of the Wildcat formation without substitutions.
4. Speaking of running the ball, the Tigers will face a Wildcat rushing defense that is not good by the advanced metrics, but UK has been good about not allowing big plays. Looking at Auburn's advanced stats, they look to be good at running efficiency but not at popping off big plays. Do you think Auburn's offensive game plan will be to run the ball and maintain long possessions?
Auburn's run game is indeed efficient, but it's also been really good at throwing mind-blowingly bad plays into the drive before it can reach the end zone. Interceptions thrown straight at defenders, fumbles, even tackles for loss with only 10 men on the field. Only against San Jose State did the offense finally march down the field, reach the red zone, and punch it in for six with regularity. Was that a sign that Auburn is turning the corner or that the Spartans aren't that good?
If Sean White gets the start, look for Auburn to continue to go for long, efficient drives. If Jeremy Johnson gets the start, however, don't be surprised if the long ball reappears.
5. Auburn's defense is ranked near the bottom of the SEC in terms of both the raw and the advanced metrics, but does appear decent versus the pass. What is a particular strength and weakness of this defensive unit? Who is a defensive player UK fans should know about heading into the game?
It's hard to say what Auburn is good at and what they're not because it changes from game to game. Louisville was shut out for a half until the Cardinals went with a quarterback that could run. The very next game, Jacksonville State moved the ball however it wanted, both through the air and on the ground. LSU had a motivated Leonard Fournette, so there's not much to take away from that game.
Then Auburn had its best defensive performance of the year against Mississippi State. The Tigers gave up one touchdown on a blown coverage and another on a long drive, but the Bulldogs were shut down most of the rest of the game. Then San Jose State came in and ran for lots of yards but were stopped by turnovers.
I can say this. Don't get too worried when Kentucky has a third down. Teams are 5 for 9 at converting fourth down against this Tiger defense.
6. Prediction time: what's the score and what's the biggest factor?
The biggest factor is Auburn's quarterback play. If it's pedestrian, the game will be close throughout. If Johnson or White find a way to connect on long passes to somebody, anybody, the Tigers get a comfortable win, though not a blow out. The defense probably isn't good enough to earn a blowout.
Auburn 24, Kentucky 21