The Auburn Tigers travel to Lexington to face the Kentucky Wildcats in Week 7. Both teams are coming off a bye week and a win on Thursday will be huge for both programs.
But at this point in the season, you’d think the roles would be reversed.
Kentucky enters Thursday’s game with a 4-1 record, its lone loss coming against Florida in a near-upset of the now ranked Gators. The Wildcats rank second in the SEC East standings, ahead of Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee — the three teams considered by many to be favored in preseason.
Auburn enters at 3-2 and is one of the SEC’s most disappointing teams after failing to live up to preseason expectations as a potential national contender. The Tigers rank last in the SEC West and are 0-2 in conference games.
It’s a tale of two programs who have seen historically different results. Kentucky is — by all accounts — a “basketball school” with “championship or bust” expectations on the hardwood and a “bowl game at best” mentality on the gridiron.
Auburn has a rich history of national championships, Heisman Trophy winners and legendary folklore that has enriched the tradition of SEC Football for decades. So why does it seem like this game is set to take place in Bizarro World rather than Lexington?
Despite Auburn being favored by two points, it seems like Thursday’s game could be the true measurement of how disappointing Gus Malzahn’s team has been/will be in 2015. A loss to Kentucky would be monumental considering it was one of two SEC teams — Vanderbilt being the other — that didn’t make a postseason appearance in 2014.
Imagine that, a team believed by many to make a College Football Playoff appearance falling victim to an upset by the team that finished 13th in the conference last season. That’s a possible scenario for the Tigers entering Thursday’s game.
On the other hand, a win for Kentucky on Thursday would provide some legitimacy for the team’s improvement under third-year coach Mark Stoops. Stoops is 11-18 (4-15) through 29 games, but has improved his record in each of his past two seasons.
Football is rarely the focus in Lexington, but the team’s minimal success has kept fans’ attention through the fall and earned the coach multiple extensions since his hire in November 2012.
Kentucky managed to start 5-1 in 2014, but failed to make a bowl appearance after ending its season on a six-game losing streak. Even still, the season was considered a success by many fans based on low preseason expectations.
In Year Three, Stoops’ team is capable of earning a statement win against one of the conference’s most historic programs.
Auburn is still a major name in the SEC, despite its lack of success in 2015. Kentucky beating Auburn is a huge deal for the program and would likely secure bowl eligibility with remaining games against Vanderbilt and Charlotte left on the team’s schedule.
Obviously, Thursday’s game is a must-win for both teams. While a victory could change each program’s outlook for the better, a loss will undoubtedly do the opposite.
The history of both programs makes a Kentucky win seem monumental and an Auburn loss tragic. After barely surviving an overtime game against FCS Jacksonville State, suffering two losses to SEC West opponents, Jeremy Johnson’s benching and D’Haquille Williams’ dismissal, a loss to Kentucky would be the icing on the bitter cake that is the 2015 season.
For Kentucky, defeat would likely bring up comparisons to last season. If you think a team’s psyche isn’t important, you’re sadly mistaken.
The Wildcats will want to avoid a potential collapse and need every win possible, even with two remaining favorable matchups left on the schedule.
Thursday’s game in Lexington may not receive the same attention as other SEC matchups, but it does feature two teams with major incentives regarding the remainder of its season.