There are some games that define a season. I believe this game is one that will define the Wildcats for 2009.
Let me preface this piece by saying that I don't think UK is likely to defeat the Crimson Tide. I hope they do, and I will be pulling very hard for them, but I am not so much into self-delusion that I go in with high hopes. But at the same time, I do have hopes, and not all of them involve a loss.
Alabama is coming off an easy victory at home, and they face what is, on paper at least, a tough opponent next week at Ole Miss. That makes UK a classic "trap game" in the sense that the Tide are very likely to be overlooking Kentucky on Saturday. Saban will try his level best to force them to treat Kentucky as a serious opponent, but let's face it -- none of the players on the Crimson Tide team could have missed the thrashing Florida put on us, and there is no doubt that it had the effect of lowering their opinion of UK's team this year -- how could it not?
Make no mistake -- the Tide players are not taking UK seriously. The coaches are, and the fans are (because they know all too well the consequences of not doing so), but the players are not. It is a fact of youth that you have limited experience upon which to draw, and you inherently think you know the world better than your old coaches or blue-haired fans. The Tide players all come from schools where losing was a rarity, and ... well, they play for Alabama, and by God, that aught to be enough to beat UK any fine day.
One thing that the Tide does not have that the Gators did have is adversity to focus the mind. The Gators were struggling with a major outbreak of some non-specific upper respiratory illness, and they knew that if they let that get to them, or took UK lightly, it could wind up an upset.
But Alabama has no such adversity, and all week long they have been subjected to pundits and media telling them how great they are. There is no doubt that they have been reading their own press clippings, and even if they haven't, they know where they stand. They will be huge favorites, and are looking to come in and wipe out the 'Cats without breaking a sweat.
Conversely, Kentucky is an angry team. They allowed Florida to emasculate them on national TV, and I have no doubt that had a profound effect on the team. Nobody likes to be punked like UK was last weekend, especially in front of the home fans. The 'Cats have had to watch film after film of that embarrassment, had to hear it from former teammates, parents, and others who are questioning their manhood and the wisdom of their decision to go to UK. If that doesn't anger these guys, then we know that they aren't worthy of the uniform they wear, and further, probably are not human beings.
The problem with anger is, it has to be channeled into focus and precision. Alabama is far more talented than Kentucky, and it will take the best game UK has played this year by far to beat the Tide, plus a little help from the Elephants. We can expect the latter because of complacency, but if the 'Cats aren't ready to embrace the opportunities Alabama will give them and put points on the board, they cannot win.
Kentucky, on Saturday, must focus harder than they ever have. No more blown blocking assignments on punts. No more blown routes. No more missed tackles. No more brain-dead, drive-killing penalties. Focus, pay attention to technique and give maximum effort, and an upset becomes possible. Nervousness, fear, and doubt have to be banished from every Wildcat mind, because any of those things could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel's back, because in this game, the camel is more like a swaybacked, three-legged mule.
So what are the stakes in this game? Well, for Alabama, a loss here will send them careening down the polls. But they have plenty of opportunity to make it back up, so it is by no means an end to their BCS championship plans. In each of the last three seasons, an SEC team with one loss has still made it to the BCS championship game, and there is no real reason why that couldn't happen again, especially if Alabama manages to defeat Florida in the likely SEC championship matchup. That fact won't be lost on the Tide players.
But for Kentucky, this game is huge. Lose this game badly, and Kentucky could end up in a downward spiral that may not stop until October 24th. The prospect of finally returning to Commonwealth Stadium 2-4 looms very large, and UK must try to take advantage of every opportunity. Alabama looks lousy as an opportunity, but any home game is far preferable to a road game in the SEC, even against so formidable an opponent as the Tide.
In the end though, even if Kentucky does lose this game, they can redeem themselves for last week by giving the Tide all they can handle. That may give them the confidence to go into the coming road trip and steal a victory. But another lopsided, early-over game will be much tougher to rebound from than the Florida loss was. There may be no moral victories, but there is a world of difference between showing that you are a competitive SEC team and demonstrating for good and all that you are little more than a doormat this year for any team not named Vanderbilt.
So am I saying that there's a chance? Yes. Slim, and with a vanishingly small margin for error, but there is a chance, and Alabama themselves will provide the crack in the door. Can Kentucky force it open?