To say a lot has happened since Auburn football last took the field on Jan. 1 against Minnesota is an understatement.
In March, the Tigers, along with everyone else, were sent home due to COVID-19, which forced them to miss spring practice.
When the Tigers returned to campus to begin summer workouts in early June, three players tested positive for COVID-19, creating an early snag in the attempt to return to play.
In early June, the team united against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. The team, coaches, and other Auburn athletes all marched to Toomer’s Corner to showcase their support.
According to Gus Malzahn, the team dealt with a full-on COVID-19 outbreak at some point during the summer, which forced the team to shut down practice and hold serious team meetings to discuss how the team needs to take the virus seriously.
While the Tigers started back up summer workouts and fall camp, players such as Bo Nix, K.J. Britt and Big Kat Bryant were named to preseason award watch lists.
The SEC announced a conference-only schedule, with 10 SEC games scheduled for each opponent. As the season got closer, Auburn saw linebackers Chandler Wooten and Josh Marsh opt out, along with defensive back Traivon Leonard.
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Then, less than a month away from the first football game, Auburn football got hit with another wave of COVID-19 cases with students back on campus. Nine players tested positive, and more were forced out due to contact tracing.
According to Gus Malzahn, the Tigers are at full strength heading into the season opener, and with just two days to game day, Auburn is ready to kick off their season against the No. 23 Kentucky Wildcats.
Auburn is 26-6-1 all-time against Kentucky, but in a season like no other, anything can happen, especially in a season opener against a veteran Kentucky team.
“First of all, we’re excited its game week,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “It’s been a long time coming to get to this point. Playing a very good Kentucky Wildcat team. Really when you look at ‘em offensively last year, they were one of the best rushing teams in all of college football, and to be able to do that in this league says a lot.”
It isn’t just the Wildcat offense that impresses Malzahn; the Kentucky defense also drew praise from Auburn’s head coach.
“Defensively, I’m very impressed they got most of their guys back,” Malzahn said. “They’re very well-coached.”
Even with a transformed wide receiver in Lynn Bowden Jr. at quarterback, Kentucky finished 8-5 last season. Now, the Wildcats have Terry Wilson Jr. back following a 2019 leg injury in the season opener.
In 2018, Wilson led the Wildcats to a 10-win season, completing 67.2% of his passes, with 1,889 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Wilson added 547 yards on the ground and four touchdowns.
The Tigers will be forced to shut down Wilson with a revamped defense, missing big names like Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, Daniel Thomas, Jeremiah Dinson and Noah Igbinoghene.
Auburn feels confident in guys such as Tyrone Truesdell, Big Kat Bryant and Roger McCreary to fill those roles.
“Overall, I’m really excited about this year’s team,” Malzahn said. “We have all kinds of new faces out there. I believe we have 13 new starters, so I’m really excited to watch this team grow.”
Auburn football was forced to adjust when they returned to campus, and then when their fellow students returned to campus, they were forced to adjust again.
As Auburn fine-tunes everything ahead of the matchup this Saturday, the Tigers, after a tumultuous offseason where adjusting was the key, are excited for football’s long-awaited return to Jordan-Hare.
“We worked ourselves through this,” Malzahn said. “Our guys have been very responsible with the COVID etiquette and how they’ve handled themselves. That’s going to be a big key moving forward too. We’re constantly talking to our guys about you know, being responsible, and what the new normal looks like. Our guys really bought in, and they’re just excited we’re playing an opponent.”
While the 17,490 stadium seats will be filled with mostly students, the game will be televised on SEC Network at 11 a.m. CST for those who will not be able to attend the game.
“We’re gonna have to earn it,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to have to execute. This is a game about execution.”
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