Kentucky, huh? Long-time no-see, Wildcats. By the time this game kicks off, it'll have been four solid years since we've faced off with you guys. And if four years doesn't sound like it was all that long ago consider the breakout star of that particular game for Auburn:
Kenny Irons, Tristan Davis and Tre Smith combined for 365 yards rushing and five touchdowns as No. 17 Auburn posted its best offensive output of the season in a 49-27 win over the Wildcats ... Auburn had 589 yards of offense, wearing down the Wildcats with touchdown drives of 80, 69, 80, 75, 81 and 80 yards. Irons scored on runs of 9, 1 and 2 yards, while Davis - a part-time defensive back who had only two previous carries this season - took over in the second half and sprinted 75 yards for a score the first time he touched the football.That's right, it took place so long ago Tristan Davis wasn't even a running back yet. Also: Auburn's offense gained 365 rushing yards and 589 total yards of offense over an SEC opponent, and demons didn't burst out of the ground at the 50-yard line to start the Apocalypse.
"I'd probably say my future is at running back," Davis said.
So, like I said: it's been a while.
Last year: In the wake of Andre Woodson's (and a fat wad of other contributors') departure, Kentucky wasn't supposed to a bowl game in 2008, and they very nearly didn't: the 'Cats were outgained by an average of 105 yards in SEC play (only Mississippi St. was worse), finished 2-6 in the league, and won those two games--over Arkansas and Mississippi St.--by a combined two points. (Even that little factoid doesn't tell you that State had an extra point blocked early and missed a 27-yard field goal in the fourth.) Even a nonconference schedule consisting of the ghost of Louisville, Norfolk St., Western Kentucky, and Middle Tennessee St. had its drama:
But when all the dust had settled, and even the 63-5 destruction at the hands of the rampant Gators had gone by the books, Kentucky snuck into the Liberty Bowl at 6-6 and fumble-returned their way past East Carolina for their third straight winning season.
Notable previous meeting: Shug Jordan didn't make too many mistakes during his tenure at Auburn, but one of the few he would admit to occurred in 1961 in the week leading up to the Auburn-Kentucky match-up at Cliff Hare Stadium.
The year before, an Auburn team that would finish the season 8-2 responded to an opening-week loss to Tennessee with what Jordan called a "lackluster" effort against a Wildcats side that the Tigers had pummeled 33-0 in 1959, winning 10-7 on a late touchdown. Jordan blamed the loss on the team "thinking more about the team we played last week than the team we were playing this week," and the following year, as a reminder of both who the Tigers would be facing that Saturday and their poor play in Lexington the year before, Jordan planned to paint his team's practice fields blue. "We wanted to show them that if they weren't going to play on the bluegrass on Saturdays, they'd have to play on it all week long," Jordan said.
Unfortunately, the student managers assigned the task of painting the fields struggled to find a field paint the appropriate shade of blue and failed to finish their painting of the field until just before the Auburn players began practicing. Although Jordan soon realized the problem and began to slow and eventually postpone the practice, the combination of severe paint fumes, an unseasonably hot day for early October, and physical exertion prompted a number of Auburn players to grow sick and experience intense headaches. Four players were eventually taken to the hospital.
The fiasco resulted in a lost day of preparation for the Tigers, the replacement of the managers responsible, and on the following Saturday a surprise 14-12 victory for the visiting Wildcats, Auburn's only home loss in the 1961 season. "If I had it to do over again," Jordan said, "I'd have just yelled at 'em." That seemed to work better: Jordan went 10-2 against the Wildcats for the remainder of his Auburn tenure.
Actual series history: This much I'm not making up: whoever's been Auburn's coach, Kentucky hasn't had much success against the Tigers. Auburn leads the all-time series 24-5-1 and hasn't lost to the Wildcats since 1966, a span of--do-the math--43 years.
Of course, because of the rarity of the series it's also only a span of 15 games, but that's much less impressive-sounding.
Causes for Alarm
1. Like a lot of SEC fans, I kind of wondered what the hell Kentucky was thinking when they hired Rich Brooks. Then I wondered with even more vigor what they were thinking when they kept the old crank around after the 3-8 2005 season that took Brooks' three-year record in Lexington to 9-25.
Now, kids, do you see what happens when you're nice to old people and have patience with a new coaching staff? You get three straight winning seasons and your program's first-ever back-to-back-to-back bowl victories. Faith, kids, gets repaid. And then you get to make this for him:
And if you can't tell, kids, that's pretty awesome.
2. I figure there's two ways that the hiring of this guy will work out for Kentucky football:
One is that the karma that should go towards the hoops team will all be siphoned off towards the football team, which--as opposed to being a cash-flush juggernaut run by the sleaziest character in a business so sleazy it makes college football look like English cricket--is a likable underdog with few natural advantages that deserves a spot outside the hoops team's shadow. And thus the football team will be more fortunate than ever. On the other hand ....
Causes for Confidence
1. ... the second possibility is that the stain of Calipari will taint the entire athletic department. The football gods and the basketball gods are good chums, you know.
2. There's also this: the good times have to come to an end sometime. I mean, come on. It's Kentucky. I know they must have built up a tremendous amount of goodwill when they were on the butt end of this sort of thing ...
but seriously. Three years should be enough, right? Kentucky being good for four doesn't compute. (Especially when--as I mentioned--they were fortunate as hell not to go, say, 4-8 last year.)
Actual alleged analysis: In some ways, Auburn and Kentucky have a lot in common. Both programs have a questionable quarterbacking situation in which the best athlete at the position (Randall Cobb in UK's case) will be lining up at wideout. Both have questions at receiver but boast depth at running back and a veteran offensive line. Both have defenses with some big shoes to fill but a handful of star-caliber players to help hold things together ... if they can stay healthy.
But with all of that said ... our running backs are better. Our "other guys" on defense are better. Our receivers are better--possibly. Our specialists (they lost a top-notch punter and their PK is shaaaaaaaky) are better. Our 15-game winning streak in the series is better. And, of course, our home-field advantage is better than their road-field advantage.
So I think this is a game that Auburn ought to win. Both teams went 2-6 last year; Auburn should be much improved while Kentucky--with their five returning starters on defense and continued lack of skill position talent--projects to be about the same. But the 'Cat D will have something to say about it, and if the injury bug has bitten Auburn by the time week 7 rolls around ... well, I'm not certain Auburn's return home after the two-week trip to Arkansas and Tennessee will be a happy one.