It’s been 268 days since Auburn played its last snaps against Minnesota in the 2020 Outback Bowl. On Saturday, at long last, Auburn football makes its return.
The Tigers welcome a new kind of schedule along with a new season — an all-conference 10-game slate. The Kentucky Wildcats will visit Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time since 2009 to kick off that 10-game, all-SEC schedule. Here are some players on both sidelines to watch for and keys to victory for Saturday’s contest.
Terry Wilson Jr. (QB) - Wilson was the starter during Kentucky’s 10-3 season in 2018, its best season since 1977, and only the third time in program history where double-digit wins were reached. The senior will take the field on Saturday for the first time since he suffered a season-ending left knee injury in Week 2 of last season.
Wilson has acute pocket awareness. He was rated as the No. 2 dual-threat junior college prospect by 247Sports in 2018. His quickness and ability to evade defenders make him dangerous in the running game, while also presenting an aerial threat.
Wilson completed 67.2% of his passes during his 2018 breakout season, throwing for 1,889 yards and 11 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
UK Running Backs - It’s challenging to pick one running back to watch for on Saturday since Kentucky consistently utilizes several guys in the backfield. The Wildcats lost their top rusher from a season ago in Lynn Bowden Jr., who was taken in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
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However, they return Asim Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez Jr., all three of which had over 500 yards rushing last season. Rose is expected to be the primary rusher for the Wildcats, but expect to see Smoke and Rodriguez a fair bit as well.
Jamar Watson (OLB) - The SEC’s leading sack returner is looking to make a statement this season and bump up his draft stock. Watson totaled 6.5 sacks in 2019 for Kentucky, amassing 36 total tackles with one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
One of the captains for the 2020 season, the Brandywine, Maryland, native is ranked as the third-highest graded returning edge rusher among all Power 5 schools, per Pro Football Focus.
Bo Nix (QB) - The Auburn quarterback became an instant star in the college football world last season after his late-game heroics led the Tigers to a 27-21 victory in the season opener against Oregon. In his freshman year, Nix completed 57.6% percent of his passes for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Chad Morris is taking over the offensive coordinator role for Auburn this season after Kenny Dillingham departed for Tallahassee and Florida State. It will be interesting to watch Nix this Saturday to see how he fits into Morris’ offensive playbook and style.
Morris served as the offensive coordinator for Tulsa in 2010 and Clemson from 2011-2013. Under Morris’ offense, the quarterbacks all threw for over 3,500 yards with over 30 touchdown passes during those years.
Nix certainly has the talent to have a breakout season under the Morris offense. He’s been named to the preseason watch list for the Davey O’Brien Award, an award presented to college football’s best quarterback.
Nix’s top three targets from last season — Seth Williams, Eli Stove and speedster Anthony Schwartz — all are returning for the 2020 season. Considering this, expect Auburn to be aggressive in the passing game on Saturday under Morris’ offense.
K.J. Britt (LB) - One of Auburn’s four captains and undoubtedly one of the defensive leaders is K.J. Britt. The only players with more tackles last season were Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas, who were both drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Britt’s name is on several preseason watch lists, including the Bednarik Award, the Nagurski Trophy, the Butkus Award and the Lott Impact Trophy.
He announced his return for a senior year on Jan. 6 via Instagram following his career-best junior season. The Oxford, Alabama, native finished the season with 68 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
Shaun Shivers (RB) - Perhaps best known for knocking the helmet off Alabama safety Xavier McKinney en route to his go-ahead rushing touchdown in the 2019 Iron Bowl, Shivers will get the start at running back on Saturday.
Despite his small stature at 5-foot, 7-inches, Shivers will lower his shoulder on just about anybody. A multi-sport athlete who also runs track, he can change directions quickly and his speed makes him dangerous in the open field.
Shivers also possess an ability to gain extra yards after initial contact because of the level of physicality that he plays with. His playmaking ability and leadership role has earned the junior, whose nickname is “Worm,” a spot at captain for the 2020 season.
“It’s no surprise that he was selected captain,” said Nix. “He’s going to be a good player for us. He just comes every day with a great mentality, a great attitude. Worm is always smiling and having fun, and so you can really count on him to bring good positive energy. In the SEC, you need guys like that.”
Keys to Victory
Kentucky - The Wildcat secondary will have to prevent big plays through the air and keep the Auburn receivers in front of them. Nix has his top three weapons at receiver returning and under a new Morris offense, expect Auburn to air the ball out a fair bit.
Kentucky will need to force Auburn to use the ground game more, allowing the Wildcats to utilize their strengths at defensive line to stop the offense.
Wilson will have to perform as he did in 2018 at quarterback, scrambling to pick up yards and making smart decisions. The Auburn linebackers in Owen Pappoe and Britt will be looking to disrupt Wilson and the Kentucky offense.
Kentucky needs to establish a run game and take advantage of a newer, less experienced Auburn defensive line. Rotating the running backs in and out to keep guys fresh will allow the Wildcats to pound the ball inside continuously.
Auburn - Slowing down the Kentucky running game will be crucial for the Tigers if they’re looking to avoid a home loss to Kentucky. Players like Colby Wooden, Tyrone Truesdell and Derick Hall will need to step up on the defensive front and make plays all game.
The Auburn offensive line will need to create holes for Shivers and protect Nix against Kentucky’s strong defensive line. If Shivers can create some rushing offense early for the Tigers, this will allow for better play-action passes to be set up later in the game.
The line must protect Nix and allow these play-action passes to develop. Nix will need to find and attack the mismatches between his receivers and the Kentucky secondary to have success.
The game kicks off at 11 a.m. CST and will be broadcast on the SEC Network.
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