Gus Malzahn and Mark Stoops were in the same boat a month ago, and it was sinking fast. Both coaches had a losing record, a fuming fan base and as hot a seat as existed in the SEC.
Auburn’s Malzahn and Kentucky’s Stoops are in the same boat today, too, but it’s cruising now. Both have cranked up their defense, supercharged their running game and ripped off four wins to right the ship.
Malzahn’s Tigers started 1-2 before winning four straight – first a fistfight against LSU, then by averaging a ridiculous 393.7 rushing yards in the next three. That included Saturday’s staggering stat line: 543 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in a rout of Arkansas.
Stoops’ Wildcats started 0-2 before winning four of the last five – the only loss coming at No. 1 Alabama, and Kentucky put up about as much of a fight as anyone has in that one. In the wins, Kentucky averaged 279.3 rushing yards per game.
Stoops spoke for both coaches Monday when asked whether, with sporadic quarterback play (all four Wildcats wins have come with backup Stephen Johnson II at the helm), his team could’ve enjoyed this much success if not for a pulverizing ground game.
“No,” he said. “No. No. No, no, no. No. No. We would not have had the success. We would not have gotten better defensively. We would not have been able to win those games if we were not physical enough to run the ball.”
Credit the emergence of bulldozer Benny Snell, one of the league’s best freshmen, as a complement to breakaway specialist Boom Williams. After zero carries in the first two weeks, Snell has run for 431 yards and six touchdowns in Kentucky’s four wins.
Both coaches also made difficult staff decisions early in the season that have paid off: Malzahn surrendered offensive play-calling to coordinator Rhett Lashlee and Stoops took over defensive play-calling from D.J. Eliot.
In wins over South Carolina and Vanderbilt, the Wildcats allowed just one offensive touchdown combined. In shootouts with New Mexico State and Mississippi State, Stoops’ defense bowed up and made big plays in the fourth quarter: an interception in the end zone against the Aggies, a pick-six against the Bulldogs.
In wins over LSU, Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State and Arkansas, Malzahn’s defense – led by Kevin Steele – has allowed an average of just 9.3 points. The Razorbacks, who scored 30 on Alabama and 34 on Ole Miss the previous two weeks, got just a field goal against the Tigers.
So now here they are, improbably, Kentucky alone in second place in the SEC East and Auburn with a chance to move into a tie for second in the SEC West, having suddenly turned an Iron Bowl that felt like it might just be a Crimson Tide coronation into must-see TV. For now.
Stoops on Monday declared that his team has finally cleared a mental hurdle, shaken the loser’s mentality that is only natural when a program hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2010. But this league is unrelenting, and that’ll be put to the test Saturday.
Kentucky travels to Missouri (2-5, 0-3 SEC), which has a bad team but is a difficult place to play, especially at 11 a.m. Central Time. With Austin Peay still on the Wildcats’ schedule, a victory in Columbia all but clinches a breakthrough bowl berth for Stoops, but how will his team handle the pressure?
Auburn travels to Ole Miss (3-4, 1-3), which is in a tailspin but still has a dangerous offense and the league’s most talented quarterback. Get by this one and the schedule sets up favorably for the Tigers to reach the Iron Bowl in position to both ruin Alabama’s season and reach the SEC championship game.
Oh, and if Kentucky and Tennessee both win this weekend and Georgia beats Florida, guess who’s in a three-way tie for first in the East? Those scrappy Wildcats. Now that your mind is blown, a quick primer for the rest of the SEC weekend:
Alabama, LSU get rest and get ready: After the top-ranked Tide handled previously undefeated Texas A&M and the 19th-ranked Tigers demolished Ole Miss – welcome back, Leonard Fournette – both teams get a bye week to arm themselves for the battle in Baton Rouge next Saturday.
Georgia-Florida: The 14th-ranked Gators (5-1, 3-1) are trying to stay atop the East standings, while the Bulldogs (4-3, 2-3) are trying to stay above .500. Both quarterbacks, Florida’s Luke Del Rio and Georgia freshman Jacob Eason, have been inconsistent but are capable of big things. As previously noted, a Bulldogs victory would shake up the division.
Tennessee at South Carolina: After consecutive losses and a week off to lick their wounds, how will the 18th-ranked Volunteers (5-2, 2-2) respond on the road? The Gamecocks (3-4, 1-4) are not good, but Tennessee is not healthy.
Samford at Mississippi State: Surely not, right? Well, maybe. Dan Mullen’s Dak-less Bulldogs (2-5, 1-3) have already lost at home to South Alabama and struggled against Massachusetts this season. And Samford is 6-1, ranked 20th in the FCS. But surely not. Right?