Almost a year to the day after earning an ugly, 17-14 win over Kentucky in Tuscaloosa, the Tide now takes the return trip to Lexington for the re-match. Historically Alabama has dominated this series, putting it mildly, and the Tide is once again a heavy favorite as we go into Lexington. Of course, though, the Kentucky program under Rich Brooks is a far better one than the Tide has historically faced when going up against the Wildcats, and conference wins rarely come easy. Kentucky is a formidable foe in their own right, and they present the Alabama coaching staff plenty of challenges. Let's take a closer look at the match-ups.
Alabama Offense v. Kentucky Defense
Despite being a general juggernaut throughout the first four games of the season -- averaging over 35 points and about 500 yards of total offense per game -- the Alabama offense did encounter its first real problems of the season last week against Arkansas, as the Hogs were able to shut down the Tide's running game. Thankfully we still scored a lot of points because we had three long touchdowns, plus one short drive created by Lorenzo Washington's blocked punt, but the chink in the armor was nevertheless somewhat revealed. Simply put, the Hogs had a big, physical defensive front seven, they committed the resources necessary to stop the run, and we simply could not do much with it.
And in all fairness to Kentucky, the Wildcats do have a fine defense. Oddly enough, after spending years of having a prolific offense mixed with a defense that couldn't stop anyone, Kentucky now sports a fine defense, and it will easily be one of the best defenses we face all season. It's just a good group, top-to-bottom, with good coaching and a couple of legitimate star players to boot.
The defensive front seven, much like last week against Arkansas, does present some major issues simply because they are big and physical. The front four averages around 270 pounds, with a couple of 300 pound players in Corey Peters and Ricky Lumpkin anchoring the interior defensive line. The defensive ends are about as big as you will find for legitimate 4-3 teams, and the linebacker corps is big even by 3-4 standards. As a whole the corps averages around 240 pounds, while standout Micah Johnson comes in at around 260 pounds and Sam Maxwell is nearly as big. Bottom line, just like Arkansas a week ago, this is a very big, physical defensive front seven, and that will probably give us a lot of issues up front.
In particular, don't sleep on Micah Johnson. He is probably the best defensive player in the SEC you've never heard of, and it's only because he isn't playing for a high-profile program. He was a five-star recruit out of high school that could have legitimately gone to any school in the country, and he's practically been a standout player since first setting foot on campus. Truth be told, he's every bit as good as Rolando McClain or Brandon Spikes, and he will play on Sunday one day very soon. He can make a very big impact on a game, and we'll have to do all we can to limit his effectiveness. If he played for a high-profile program like Alabama or Florida, everyone in the country would know his name.
The biggest concern, though, that this defense poses as a whole is their ability to play the pass. Arkansas was big and physical in the front seven, but they couldn't rush the passer effectively, nor did their defensive backs cover well in space. Perhaps not too surprisingly, then, the Hogs shut down the running game with ease, but were torched in the passing game by Greg McElroy and company. Kentucky, on the other hand, faces no such limitation. Kentucky is big and physical in the front seven, but they can also effectively rush the passer, and they also have a fine defensive backfield to boot. Simply put, that's a big problem for 'Bama.
The pass rush itself is probably one of the best in the conference. The off-season loss of Jeremy Jarmon -- Jarmon tested positive for a banned supplement, lost a year of eligibility, and entered the NFL Supplemental Draft -- was a big one for the 'Cats, but the pass rush hasn't exactly struggled in his absence. Junior college transfer DeQuin Evans has played well in his place, and Collins Ukwu has been a force at times as well. Moreover, freshman Taylor Windham brings a lot of speed off the edge and he has already proven that he can rush the passer well (see the knockout blow on Tim Tebow last weekend). The Kentucky defense has racked up seven sacks this year on 79 passing attempts, so they have already showcased an ability to get after the quarterback.
That's bad enough for the Alabama offense, but making matters worse is the strength of the Kentucky defensive backfield. Cornerback Trevard Lindley is easily the cornerback in the SEC, and he will be a first round draft pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He's an impact player who opposing teams generally loathe throwing against, but unfortunately the rest of the Kentucky defensive backfield is a solid group as well. Paul Warford normally starts opposite Lindley at cornerback, but he is missing the Alabama game with an injury, and Randall Burden will play in his place. The good news for Kentucky is that Burden seems like a solid option, and if nothing else he can really dance. Likewise, Winston Guy and Calvin Harrison really aren't game-changers at safety, but both are decent players at this stage who can get the job done.
All in all, the Kentucky defense is a fine one, and they present a lot of problems for the Alabama offense. They are big and physical enough to stop the run, and once they stop the run, you have to throw the football successfully, and to that end they can rush the passer and cover in the defensive backfield. Again, it's a fine unit, and if they can stay healthy it's perhaps the best defense the Tide will face all year. Objectively speaking, points ought to be hard to come by.
Alabama Defense v. Kentucky Offense
Remember earlier when I talked about how Kentucky used to be a team with a prolific offense and a laughable defense? Well, now the roles have entirely reversed, and its the offense that suddenly cannot get out of its own way. The Wildcats finished 87th in the country last year in scoring offense, and if the early returns are any indicator this offense is likely to much more closely resemble the 2008 offense than it does either the 2006 or 2007 units.
The biggest problem that this offense faces is simply that they don't have a lot of high-end players, particularly at the skill positions. At quarterback, Mike Hartline is a big, tall quarterback with decent mobility, but that is generally where his positive attributes end. He can put up a good completion percentage when throwing a lot of dink and dunk routes, but he doesn't have the arm you would probably imagine given his frame, nor is he overly accurate. On the whole, most of the time he's just an average-at-best passer.
Likewise, there are really no true game-changers at the skill positions. Randall Cobb, the former quarterback, is really the only true playmaker on the outside, and in general Kentucky does absolutely everything in their power to get the ball in his hands (including putting Cobb in the Wildcat). Aside from Cobb, though, there is just really nothing of note on the outside. Chris Matthews and Matt Roark are both very big targets (at around 6'5), but neither are particularly athletic and they have struggled to get separation. Kyrus Lanxter has been slowed by injuries, and while T.C. Drake is a decent tight end, he's probably not as good as Jacob Tamme was back when the Wildcats could really light up the scoreboard. Truth be told, outside of Cobb, their best receiver is likely the speedy Derrick Locke, a tailback, coming out of the backfield.
And speaking of tailbacks, Kentucky has a decent group there that generally features a mix of size and speed. Derrick Locke is the speedster of the group, and he is one of the quickest backs in the SEC. Physically he is almost a clone of Arkansas' Michael Smith, and he brings to the table the same strengths and weaknesses. The Wildcats, however, do have some physical backs that they use to run inside, so they can attack you in more ways than one. Both Alfonso Smith and Moncell Allen are physical tailbacks well over 200 pounds that can pound the interior running game. Likewise, fullback John Conner -- not related to this guy -- is a legitimate threat at fullback as a runner, receiver, and blocker.
The biggest strength of this offense is clearly at the point of attack with the offensive line. This is the most experienced offensive line in the SEC, and they start four seniors. Left tackle Zipp Duncan and right tackle Justin Jeffries are probably the best two players of the group, but the interior linemen aren't exactly shabby in their own right. It's not a unit featuring any true standout players, per se, but it's a capable group. They aren't mashers in the running game, mind you, but they do generally do a good job of protecting the quarterback. Kentucky quarterbacks have only been sacked three times this year on roughly 90 passing attempts, so these guys can clearly get the job done in pass protection.
All in all, though, again, this Kentucky offense just isn't very good. There simply aren't enough playmakers at the skill positions, and the quarterback isn't a standout player either. The offensive line is a solid group, as are the tailbacks, but they don't do enough in their own right to be able to overcome all of the shortcomings everywhere else that would allow Kentucky to truly light up the scoreboard.
As a whole, you really have to feel confident about how the Alabama defense looks to match up here. Kentucky is a physical team that likes to run the football, but even with the absence of Dont'a Hightower, it's hard to see this team having very much success against the Alabama defense on the ground. Likewise, while the Tide may struggle a bit to get to the passer, it's hard to see Kentucky having a lot of success in the passing game considering they lack quality depth at wide receiver or a consistently effective passing quarterback.
Putting It All Together
In the grand scheme of things, you really have to like the Tide's chances of winning this game. I think it's clear that we are the better team here, and there is a legitimate reason that we are favored going into this game.
On the other hand, though, Kentucky is no pushover. They may struggle offensively, but this is a good football team, and I personally think that Rich Brooks is easily one of the most underrated coaches of his generation. These guys have made three straight bowl games, and they will likely make a fourth straight in 2009. Likewise, after getting embarrassed by Florida, expect this Kentucky team to show up Saturday morning in Lexington like they just ate nails for breakfast. They'll be ready to play a long, physical contest, rest assured of that.
The good news is that the Kentucky offense ought to have very little success in terms of point production, unless we really give them some cheap points via turnovers and special teams breakdowns (speaking of which, Locke had a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown against Louisville). That said, unless we can really improve in terms of run blocking, the Kentucky defense may very well shut our offense down as well, and we could be in for another long, ugly, low-scoring game much like we had a year ago. Those who think that the Tide is simply going to walk into Lexington and come away with an easy win are probably in for a rude awakening come Saturday. Unless we suddenly play a lot better up front, or Kentucky decides to beat itself for the second week in a row, this is a game that is likely to be close going into the latter stages of the contest.
Hope for the best.