Just when the Kentucky Wildcats evened their record at 2-2 for the season, they got some very bad news. The Alabama Crimson Tide is next on the schedule. And the Kentucky vs Alabama imbalance is the greatest in the history of the SEC. For a Kentucky football fan, that is a statement considering that the Wildcats have lost 30 straight to Florida. At least when the UF streak started, the overall series was somewhat close.
You can not say the same about the Kentucky and Alabama series, the Tide holds a dominating 36-2-1 advantage. The games have not been close either as the average score of the games has been 25.8 to 7.3 for Alabama.
Luckily this is only a once every four or five-year meeting. Let's meet the Crimson Tide.
You can forget everything you thought you knew about starting a freshman quarterback in the SEC. For most teams, having a new quarterback results in a major time of adjustment, but Alabama has won three of their four titles with a new quarterback under center.
Jalen Hurts has been very impressive and is the type of quarterback that has given Kentucky nightmares for years. Hurts has completed 62.7% of his passes for 727 yards and has 5 touchdowns against just one interception. He has a nice arm and is getting better as a passer every game. Hurts is also going to beat you with his legs and he is the second leading rusher on this team with 251 yards and 3 touchdowns. He averages 5.6 yards a carry and could be a matchup nightmare for the Kentucky defense. Hurts can take over a game and carry this team on his legs as he had 146 yards rushing versus Ole Miss.
Speaking of nightmares, the Tide's leading rusher is "the one that got away". Damien Harris has been outstanding this year with 345 yards on the ground and a touchdown and a gaudy 8.6 yard a carry average. He has breakaway speed and is elusive and already has runs of 67 and 73 yards on the year. As of this writing, Harris was listed as questionable with a sprained ankle, but I would think we will see Harris as this is a big game for him to go against his home state team.
If Harris can not go or is limited, freshman Joshua Jacobs is poised to step up. He has 152 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns and is averaging 8.3 yards a carry. Fellow freshman BJ Emmons has a 5.5 yard a carry average and a touchdown. Five-star sophomore Bo Scarborough has just a 3.3 yard per carry average but he seems to be the goal line guy with 3 touchdowns.
As of this writing, Calvin Ridley was questionable for this game, but I would expect him, like Harris to play. Ridley was sensational as a freshman with 1045 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns, He leads the team this year with 20 receptions and 224 yards and can take over a game like he did against Western Kentucky, with 9 catches for 129 yards. ArDarius Stewart is a nice complement and has 3 TDs among his 13 receptions for 205 yards. Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter is averaging a whopping 26.3 yards a reception and is the ultimate deep threat. OJ Howard is a 6'6 tight end that will probably see action on Sundays. He has 10 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown.
The heart of any Alabama team is going to be the defense and this unit does not disappoint. They are allowing just 67.3 yards a game on the ground and a stingy 2.3 yards per carry. If you are going to get it done against Alabama, you had better do it on first or second down as they allow just 25.81% on third down conversions. They are equally stingy near the end zone and have allowed just one in seven red zone conversions for a touchdown.
The cornerstone of the defense is a front seven that is constantly attacking and this defense has 13 sacks on the year and 24 tackles for a loss in the offensive backfield. Jonathan Allen is a monster on the line and had 12 sacks this season and is on pace to equal that with three this season, Dalvin Thompson has 12 tackles and adds another sack while five-stars Daron Payne and Da'Shawn Hand bolster the run defense.
Alabama is known as "Linebacker U" and this crop does not disappoint. Reuben Foster leads the team with 29 tackles while Ryan Anderson has 4 tackles for a loss in the backfield, three of them were sacks. Shaun Hamilton is also a presence in the opposing backfield with 17 tackles and 4 of those were for a loss. The surprise of the defense may be Keith Holcombe who is a three-star sophomore but is fourth on the team with 14 tackles. Tim Williams does a great job of getting to the quarterback as well and has 1.5 sacks.
Part of the reason it is so hard to pass on Alabama is because they do such a good job of getting to the quarterback and forcing hurried passes. The defensive backfield is also very solid and adds to the degree of difficulty in passing against the Tide. Corners Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick are a formidable duo. Humphrey has an interception and three passes broken up while Fitzpatrick has 20 tackles, two tackles for a loss and three pass breakups. Eddie Jackson and Ronnie Harrison each have 10 tackles and an interception each, while Anthony Averett has played well with 12 interceptions. This defense gets even better as Tony Brown returns from suspension.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This one could be ugly and it could be over very quickly.
Even if you buy into the thought that this is a mended defense after the South Carolina game, this is still the best offense that Kentucky has faced on the season. Alabama is averaging 246.3 yards a game on the ground and 5.5 a carry. The defense is the most efficient defense in college football and is virtually impossible to run on.
In short, it will take a perfect game from a deeply imperfect team to even keep this game respectable. In researching, the only real flaw I could find is that Alabama has allowed 13 sacks on the season but then Kentucky has allowed the same number. Plus Hurts can be even more dangerous when he is forced out of the pocket and has to run.
Unfortunately, it's going to be a long day. As it is for virtually any opponent that travels to Tuscaloosa. It's not about winning, it's about making it somewhat respectable and escaping Alabama without any serious injury.
I must say that on a side note, this game is not going to affect how I feel about this team being able to make a bowl and the future of Mark Stoops at Kentucky. I don't want to see a 70-0 blowout, but this is simply a horrible matchup for Kentucky and this particular Alabama team could be Saban's best. And is young enough to be so for the next couple of years. I want to see Kentucky fight and not give up and to try to build on the unity they showed against South Carolina.
That said, I hesitate to try to even predict a score for this game. Vegas odds put this at a 31-35 point spread early and as a fan, I find that kind of spread and level of uncompetitiveness unacceptable. That said, this is Alabama and they are going to make anyone look silly. All I can hope for is that this does not evolve into a "should there be a running clock debate?" type of game.
I'm going to be optimistic and say Kentucky can match the output of Western Kentucky and let's call this one 38-10 for the Tide. Don't bet the house on it.