There is no doubt that the Kentucky Wildcats are vastly improved under head coach Mark Stoops. Kentucky football is no longer a national punchline. In fact, the Cats are well respected nationally and around the SEC.
There were six Wildcats named the the Preseason All SEC Team. UK is looking to go to a fifth straight bowl game. Every Sunday, there are former Wildcats in the NFL. The recruiting classes are like none we have seen before the arrival of Stoops and his staff.
Now the next step of the process is upon the program and it starts with the Auburn Tigers. This is something new for Mark Stoops and his team. Traditionally the Wildcats like to open the season with a couple of games against teams from the MAC or similar conferences. This will be the first game under Mark Stoops in which the Cats debut against a team in the Power 5.
Historically this is how Kentucky usually opens the season under Stoops:
- 2013: Game 1 vs. Western Kentucky; Game 2 vs. Miami (OH); Game 3 vs. Louisville
- 2014: Game 1 vs. Tennessee Martin; Game 2 vs. Ohio; Game 3 vs. Florida
- 2015: Game 1 vs. Louisiana; Game 2 vs. South Carolina; Game 3 vs. Florida
- 2016: Game 1 vs. Southern Mississippi; Game 2 vs. Florida; Game 3 vs. New Mexico State
- 2017: Game 1 vs. Southern Mississippi; Game 2 vs. EKU; Game 3 vs. South Carolina
- 2018: Game 1 vs. Central Michigan; Game 2 vs. Florida; Game 3 vs. Murray State
- 2019: Game 1 vs. Toledo; Game 2 vs. Eastern Michigan; Game 3 vs. Florida
As you can see, Kentucky usually doesn’t face a Power 5 opponent until game three of the season outside of a few years where an SEC team is scheduled for game two. Stoops likes to get a game or two under his belt before taking on one of the big dogs.
This is not a knock on Kentucky’s schedule. Most teams face similar opponents the first couple of weeks to start the season with another cupcake scheduled somewhere along the way. But there are some teams that schedule a big time opponent right off the out of the gate.
And one of those teams is the Auburn Tigers.
As a program, they have not shied away from a challenge to start the season. And more often than not it turns out well for them. Last year they defeated #11 Oregon with Bo Nix as a freshman quarterback. The season before that they took on #6 Washington and ended up with a 21-16 win. In 2017 they faced off with #3 Clemson and took a close 14-6 loss. They opened with #2 Clemson in 2016 and they opened with Louisville in 2015.
I think you get the picture here.
The Tigers are conditioned to begin the year with a challenge. This was something pointed out to me on Thursday by the voice of the Auburn Tigers, Andy Burcham. He was a guest on The Take on ESPN 680/105.7 and gave us some insight on how Auburn relishes in the big game to kick off the year.
This is not something the Wildcats are used to under Mark Stoops. This isn’t a game to work out the kinks or to knock the rust off of Terry Wilson. But the good news is this is a great opportunity for the Wildcats and I believe they are the perfect Kentucky team to start off in a game of this magnitude.
The entire defense is filled with veterans and the Tigers are breaking in a new offense as Chad Morris takes over the play-calling. Auburn’s defense is replacing a good deal of talent while Kentucky’s offensive line is as deep and experienced as they have ever been. Kentucky’s running game should have good numbers against the Tigers.
And one cannot leave out the fact that Jordan-Hare Stadium won’t have the usual 80,000 plus fans in attendance. Burcham said the number will be more like 17,000 fans with students included.
All of this is setting up for a game matchup for the Cats in what will be their most difficult opening game in the Mark Stoops era. Win this one, and the confidence of this team will be off the charts with games against the Mississippi schools back-to-back. A 3-0 start in an SEC-only season would be a game changer for the season.