Alabama. Birthplace of Bocephus' unique sound, and inspiration of the lyric above. Heart of Dixie. Legacy of the Bear. Home of the Crimson Tide, and a football culture unsurpassed anywhere in America. Home of one of, and possibly the, greatest football program, tradition-wise, in America, and #2 ranked in all the land.
Kentucky. Home of Montgomery-Gentry. Border state. Legacy of the Baron. Home of the Kentucky Wildcats and the Big Blue Nation, a basketball culture unsurpassed anywhere in America. Home of a rising football program that once had the Bear prowling the sidelines.
Today, you can find them all in Alabama. Tuscaloosa, to be exact. Bryant-Denny Stadium, to be more precise, at 3:30 PM EDT. Both teams will be ready. Both teams have had some attrition. Both know what the stakes are for this game and both are ready to do battle on the gridiron.
There is no tradition between the two schools other than sharing Bear Bryant as coach. Alabama has dominated Kentucky in football, sporting an almost nonsensical 33-2-1 record against the 'Cats in a series that stretches back to World War I. No rivalry can develop from such a statistic, ever. However, a confluence of events including an Alabama slide in recent history and the gradual rise of Kentucky from the depths of Mummefication has conspired to produce a rising Tide under head coach Nick Saban, and a rising Wildcat program under Rich Brooks, meeting as undefeated contestants in a battle with national implications.
Of course, the Tide will be favored. They are the more talented team. They have more Rivals 4 and 5-star recruits on their team right now than Kentucky has had in the last ten years. They have the biggest and best offensive line in the SEC, a fantastic young receiver in Julio Jones, a proven quarterback in John Parker Wilson, and a solid defense that is ranked 15th in scoring defense in the nation and is proven against SEC and ACC competition.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has a completely rebuilt offense from the quarterback on up. Only Dicky Lyons Jr and the running backs are proven against SEC competition. But Kentucky does sport the #1 scoring defense in the nation, albeit against inferior competition. There is nothing exciting about Kentucky, nothing sexy, nothing special except for their defensive and special teams statistics, which are gaudy and impressive.
So with all that, let's take a quick look at how I think this game shakes out:
Many casual football fans do not understand how important the lines are in football, because what we see are backs running down the field and quarterbacks slinging touchdowns to athletic receivers, but all that begins with the line. If you have a poor line, you will have a poor football team.
Alabama has arguably the best offensive line in the entire nation. It will take an overwhelming effort by the UK defensive front to disadvantage them, and I'm not even sure that any amount of effort will be enough.
Kentucky's defensive line is proven in SEC competition, and has dominated lesser competition to an astonishing degree. Alabama's defensive line has not been quite as dominant except against the run, where they have been special. Terrance Cody, a JC transfer, is the root of this line, where his 6'5", 365# mass has disrupted the running game of every team they have played.
Kentucky has one of the best defensive lines in the nation, as does Alabama. They go about it differently, but both are equally effective. Corey Peters, Ventrell Jenkins, Jeremy Jarmon and Myron Pryor are proven, effective SEC linemen. The likely return of Ricky Lumpkin from injury just makes this D-line better.
Offensive skill positions
Alabama has solid but unspectacular skill positions except for one -- Julio Jones. The true freshman was ranked #1 by Rivals as a wide receiver coming out of high school, a true 5* game-changer that has lived up to his billing completely.
Kentucky has a 4-deep offensive backfield of proven players. Derrick Locke and Alfonso Smith are speed merchants who can gain yards in huge chunks. Tony Dixon and Moncell Allen are bruising runners who punish linebackers with their physicality. Alabama also has proven runners in Glen Coffee, Roy Upchurch and Terry Grant. Mark Ingram is a true freshman, a 4-star out of high school.
Advantage: Slight Alabama
John Parker Wilson is a senior quarterback who is proven in the crucible of the SEC. For the last two years, he has been the man in charge of Nick Saban's attack, and is coming into his own.
For Kentucky, Mike Hartline is a sophomore with very limited experience, except this year. The cerebral type, Hartline excels at game management and making smart decisions, and has been a proven leader in Kentucky's first 4 victories. He is not at all proven, though, and this will be his first start against an SEC foe.
Advantage: Strong Alabama
Kentucky has truly found a niche in the SEC at getting good linebackers, and developing them into game-changers. Unfortunately, the best UK linebacker, Micah Johnson, will likely see limited if any action against Alabama. But Braxton Kelley, Johnny Williams, Michael Schwindel and Sam Maxwell are an outstanding group that will fly all over the field on Saturday.
Alabama has a young but talented linebacking corps, and in their unusual 3-4 scheme, they are a bit more able to absorb their youth and inexperience. Leading the group are juniors Cory Reamer and Bandon Fanney, and the younger guys are Rolando McClain and Don'ta Hightower.
Advantage: Marginal Kentucky
Alabama has the outstanding Javier Arenas, an impressive speedster at one corner, and Kareem Jackson at the corners. Both are extremely fast and athletic, but both are small at 5-9 and 5-11 respectively, rendering them somewhat vulnerable to larger receivers. At the safeties, Justin Woodall is leading the Tide D-backs with 3 interceptions. Rashad Johnson is the second-leading tackler for the Elephants with 17 solo and 9 assists.
At corner, Kentucky has the all-SEC candidate Trevard Lindley on one side and David Jones on the other. Lindley is a proven cover-corner who is big enough to handle most receivers at 6'0", and co-leads the team in interceptions with 2. The other corner is David Jones a senior who is having a solid year in relief of the academically ineligible Paul Warford. At safeties are senior Marcus McClinton, co-leader in INT's with 2, and Matt Lentz, newly elevated to the position over Ashton Cobb.
With the exception of field goal kicking, Kentucky has been excellent on special teams this year. Senior kicker/punter Tim Masthay has been a weapon, allowing only 11 kicks to be returned all year. The combination of Ryan Tydlacka and Masthay have allowed only 3 punt returns all year, and pinned the opposition inside their own 20 many times (I can't find this stat anywhere). Kentucky is #1 in the nation in kickoff returns and #48 in punt returns.
Alabama special teams are less special. Despite the obviously dangerous Javier Arenas returning kicks and punts, he is only 93rd and 29th respectively in kickoff and punt returns. at #111 in net punting vs. UK's 62nd, Alabama hasn't exactly impressed in that statistic either. Leigh Tiffin has been solid but unspectacular as a field goal kicker.
Advantage: Strong Kentucky
This game is being played at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Alabama where 92,000+ fans once turned out for spring practice. Nothing further need be said.
Advantage: Strong Alabama
In the final analysis, this game is going to come down to the lines. If Alabama's more talented line dominates the 'Cats on defense, Alabama will have to give up big plays in order to lose the game. If this is a war of attrition, Kentucky will have a slight advantage because of their marginally stronger defense. In a shootout, Alabama has a big advantage because of their more experienced quarterback and better wide receivers.
In the end, it will be an upset if Kentucky wins, make no mistake. Kentucky is capable, but if Alabama executes solidly, it is unlikely that the 'Cats can pull the upset. But I think Alabama is more overconfident than is being portrayed in the media, and I think that overconfidence will manifest itself negatively. The Tide can point to a number of good reasons why they should win this game, not the least of which is the fact that UK has never won at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Be sure to visit Roll 'Bama Roll as well for updates as the game progresses
My pick: Kentucky, 21-20 in an upset.