Kentucky vs. Alabama
Gametime: 12:21 (Palindrome! BOOYAH!)
Location: Lexington, KY
Television: ESPN360.com, many of the local markets
I know it’s been a while since we’ve rocked out an Unscientific Preview. Frankly, I’m surprised that the football team, the fanbase, and the SEC even carried on without. Blame it on the fact that the first few games this season were far from noteworthy, with the exception of Louisville… who didn’t even deserve this sort of treatment. This week, much like last week, the Cats face a Top 5 opponent who is skilled, talented, and has their eyes on an SEC title and accompanying BCS payday. Getting your teeth kicked in week in and week out is sort of the defining characteristic of the SEC… welcome to the party.
Bama is one of those teams that has tradition and mystique unlike a lot of other programs. But in Notre Dame style fashion, the Tide have had nothing of note to celebrate lately. Their last national championship? 1992. Their last SEC title? 1999. That’s 10 years without a conference title for the program that thinks they, and they alone, are the class of the SEC. Mostly because of their former coach Bear Bryant… who used to coach UK. Small world, Tide fans.
The college football universe has been perpetually gaga over the Tide for the last two seasons, most likely because Nick Saban is the man in charge in Tuscaloosa. His first two seasons led to bowls for the Tide, and recruiting classes universally lauded as some of the best in the nation. More on Satan… I mean Saban in a bit, though. Let’s get it on…
Alabama comes into Saturday’s contest as the #3 scoring offense in the conference (40.5 ppg) thanks largely to a 234 yard per game average rushing the ball. And these sorts of stats weren’t compiled against tomato can after tomato can from FCS or the Sun Belt. The Tide has played a decent schedule to this point, including their season opener against Virginia Tech. The Hokies were gashed for 268 on the ground, 150 of them coming by way of Mark Ingram. When the Tide decides to pass the ball, QB Greg McElroy is 4th in the conference in yards per game. He’s tops in the conference for passing accuracy at a shade under 70%, and has only 1 INT along with 7 TDs and 938 yards. More a product of teams loading up to stop the run? Probably. But it works for the Tide and McElroy… and that’s what counts. Most notable for the Crimson Tide passing game is who McElroy throws to. Julio Jones, who generates the most buzz and internet chatter, isn’t their leading receiver. That honor belongs to Marquis Maze, who does have an extra game under his belt this season. Both receivers are threats, and should Kentucky choose to simply stack the box, they will make UK pay.
Offensively for the Cats, it’s a far cry this season from the Woodson years in Lexington, as the Cats are in the bottom third in nearly every offensive category. Scoring? 10th at 26.7 ppg. Passing? 9th at 171 ypg. Rushing? 8th at 166 ypg. Granted, those stats were skewed because 33% of the statistical evidence is being accumulated against a dominating Florida defense. But most fans will tell you outside of hapless Miami to start the season, this team has not looked offensively dominant. That isn’t to say it isn’t possible, though. The running game for Kentucky has the potential to keep the Cats in this game, as Derrick Locke and Alfonso Smith offer a troublesome 1-2 punch capable of breaking out. Randall Cobb also provides a spark and playmaker for the UK offense capable at anytime of making a highlight reel sort of play. Ultimately though, those playmakers aside, the offensive prowess of this team rests squarely on the shoulders of Mike Hartline. Much maligned, but supported by his coaches, Hartline must will this team to win if they are to have a shot on Saturday.
Advantage: As much as it pains me to say this. The rushing game for Alabama is a bit better than UK’s, the passing game more advanced, and the Tide is facing a defense nowhere close to the D that UK is facing.
Oh defense… how you define teams’ identities. For Alabama, that’s certainly the case. The Crimson Tide come into Saturday’s game the #3 team in the conference for scoring defense (13 ppg), #1 against the rush (47 ypg), and #5 against the pass (155 ypg). Overall, the Tide is allowing just a shade over 202 yards per game… good for #1 overall in the entire SEC. Fabulous. So Kentucky’s potential strength… if you can call it that… is facing the best rushing defense in the conference? AWESOME! Other interesting fun facts… after the Tide’s season opener where they allowed 24 points, they’ve allowed a total of 28 points. In three games. The last two? 7 each. Personnel-wise, the Tide feature Marcell Dareus and Javier Arenas, #3 and #4 respectively in the SEC for sacks (3.5 & 3.0).
For Kentucky, they looked damn good in the season opener, pitching a shutout and allowing 188 total yards. Many fans, myself included, breathed a little easier knowing we had a defense capable of shutting a team down. Then Louisville happened… 27 points allowed and 378 yards surrendered to a team that many thought couldn’t fight their way out of a piss soaked paper sack. Let’s not even talk about the Florida game. The only defensive highlight was one particular hit. It certainly wasnt the nearly 500 yards surrendered or the 41 points… 31 of which came in quarter #1. Overall, the Cats are far from dominant, 10th in the conference in total defense (353.7 ypg), 6th against the pass (168 ypg), and 12th against the run (185 ypg). Yes, that’s right, dead last against the area of the game Alabama that excels the most. Stupendous.
Advantage: Again, this is more about who they are facing than the talent on the roster. While Alabama has standout defensive players, Kentucky has a few themselves, in Trevard Lindley, Micah Johnson, and DeQuin Evans. Can this Kentucky team play above what they’ve done so far this season? Of course. Will they? Doubtful, considering who they’re going up against.
Should you ask an Alabama fan, Nick Saban is the greatest thing since sliced bread. He has a 114–50–1 record in his NCAA career, has a national championship, and 2 SEC titles. Since coming to Bama, Saban has compiled a 23-8 record and one Sugar Bowl trip last year after losing the SEC Championship game. Saban was also the coach of LSU when they beat Kentucky in the “Bluegrass Miracle”. I contemplated embedding that video, but would rather jam bamboo toothpicks under my fingernails. For Coach Rich Brooks, his career at Kentucky has been slow moving but progress nonetheless. The Cats may still finish no better than 5th, but at least they don’t get beat by 70 anymore. Huzzah!
Advantage: National titles trump Bourbon bottles and F150 Signature Series trucks. Barely.
Crazy Bear Bryant tatoo guy. Classy.
Beautiful, southern accent, and a Kentucky fan. Meet perfection.
Advantage: As if this even needed to be said. Though bonus points for the white face paint and the houndstooth hat for the tattoo guy.
Last season’s Alabama-Kentucky contest was a bit of a surprise to not only Alabama fans but the nation, as Kentucky hung with the Crimson Tide much longer than expected. The 17-14 margin was a jaw dropper, and most Kentucky fans felt that was a game Kentucky could have won despite the Tide’s high ranking and considerable talent gap. The last Wildcat win against Alabama came in 1997, in Lexington. The lone victory before then? 1922. Despite the 2-34-1 series record, despite the statistical dominance, despite the advantages Bama has on the roster, I fully expect UK to keep this one closer than many expect, and considering the way Florida handled the Cats last weekend, a close game, in my mind, is a great success.