Deep-ish Analysis: Auburn and Kentucky's Singular Talents Lead Them

Each post I give the "Deep Analysis" tag indicates that it comes as a result of me re-watching the game described. This time around though, I had to settle for the edited SportSouth replay of Auburn-Kentucky. Large parts of the first half and non-scoring drives of the second were cut out for time. So while I did go back and re-watch this one, I didn't get to see everything. Keep that in mind.

Cameron Newton is the Auburn offense.

What I saw indicated to me that Auburn is essentially running a Gus Malzahn-ified version of Florida's 2007 offense. It is working and very well could get Newton a Heisman just like Tim Tebow got, but it also means that as Newton goes, so goes the Tiger offense. When the offense succeeded, it was because Newton was hitting his receivers and picking up key first downs with his feet. When it failed, it often was due to him throwing incompletions or an interception.

More to the point, roughly two thirds of the Tigers' offensive plays were Newton passes or runs. He had more than three times as many rushes as the next highest guy. On the game winning drive where Auburn wanted both to move the ball an kill clock, Malzahn kept up a pretense of balance for a little while before just having Newton run it over and over. It was straight out of Dan Mullen's 2007 play book. Newton came through with 212 passing yards and 198 rushing yards, but against a better defense than Kentucky's, it may not hold up as well.

Randall Cobb was magnificent.

Speaking of one-man highlight machines, Randall Cobb did his best to be for the Wildcats what Newton was for the Tigers. He's not the physical freak that Newton is and plays a different role, so he's never going to rack up stats in quite the same way that Auburn's behemoth signal caller will. He still came away with a combined 207 passing, rushing, receiving, and return yards, often slicing through the Tiger defense with ease.

There is just about nothing that Cobb can't do, and it's a wonder that he ended up at Kentucky. He and Derrick Locke combined for every rushing and receiving yard on Kentucky's masterful first drive, one that left Auburn's spectators utterly gobsmacked with looks of disbelief on their faces. Kentucky's offensive line is still a Kentucky offensive line, so he'll never dominate a game throughout as Newton did on Saturday. He certainly can dominate for stretches though, and he did just that periodically.

Auburn's is only championship caliber thanks to Newton.

The emergence of Nick Fairley ensures that Auburn's defense is better than it was last year at least marginally. He's plugging up the middle about as well as anyone in the country is. The big problem is that it's nearly as inconsistent as it was last year, meaning that key problems are still there. Kentucky exploited them well at times, providing about as good a blueprint as you could ask for in facing the Tiger defense.

First, run up the middle only as needed to keep the defense honest. Remember: Fairley. In fact, you should probably do that more often than not when Fairley has rotated out. Second, run outside the tackles as much as you prudently can given your style and game plan. Auburn still is subpar in stopping outside runs. Third, you should also probe the outsides in the passing game as well. Auburn is good up the middle at each level generally, but the edges are very vulnerable. Finally, hit the middle of the field with passes once it is softened up by your sideline and swing passes.

It's really that simple, and someone with as good an offense but a better defense than Kentucky has will follow that to victory. The only way for Auburn to overcome that glaring weakness is by having Newton pull his Superman routine, scoring lots of points while also keeping the opposing offense off the field.

Kentucky's defense is still a same old Kentucky defense.

One thing Rich Brooks deservedly got credit for was improving the general play of Kentucky's defenses. They certainly were better than what the Wildcats put out there under Guy Morriss and Hal Mumme. However, some people got carried away with the praise. They were improved, but it was in the sense that they went from being a defensive doormat to being merely mediocre.

It is clear that mediocre is still what the 'Cats are. Newton often got several yards upfield before being touched. Receivers caught balls without anyone within five yards. Michael Dyer and Mario Fannin each rushed for over six yards per carry. Auburn's offense will make teams' defenses look bad, but a lot of the time, it was just too easy for the Tigers to move the ball. A lot of that has to do with youth and inexperience on this year's team, so it's not all on coordinator Steve Brown. However, they just looked lost for a lot of what I saw.

Takeaways

It was the Kentucky game of last year that it became 100 percent, crystal clear that Chris Todd was not going to lead the team to anything special in 2009. He was just too limited to do everything Malzahn wanted, and he was in large part the reason why the Tigers lost that game.

Newton, if it wasn't clear by now, can do everything Malzahn wants his quarterbacks to do. Despite the parallels with Tebow that I drew earlier, he's clearly a different player. Newton will run over a DB every now and then, but he doesn't relish contact like Tebow did. He's also a couple steps faster and has a stronger arm. His ridiculous 33-yard pass to Kodi Burns is all the proof of the latter point you could need. Newton is the reason why Auburn is avoiding another mid-season slump so far.

As for Kentucky, well... stop me if you've heard this before, but the defense is holding back the offense in a bad way. Mike Hartline is much improved and on pace for nearly 3,000 yards with a passing efficiency rating about 33% higher than he's managed before. Cobb and Locke are fantastic, and there wasn't a humugous drop off after Locke's injury when Donald Russell filled in. Joker Phillips is a good offensive coach, and he's finally got the offense turned around.

The defense, on the other hand, didn't force a single stop in the first half against Auburn, as the Tigers racked up four touchdowns and a field goal. So far it is also the only defense to make Florida's offense look good. It got a lot better in the second half of Saturday's game, but it couldn't get a stop on Auburn's final 19-play drive even when everyone knew Newton was going to carry the ball on nearly every play.

Based on what I saw, I'd say both teams are in for some trouble this weekend. Arkansas had no trouble shredding Auburn's defense last year, and a lot of the same weaknesses still persist. Plus, the Razorbacks won't lose much with Fairley taking away things between the tackles. I also have serious doubts about Kentucky's ability to do anything to slow down Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore. The 'Cats will have to hope they can turn it into a shootout to come away with a W.

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