Hope For the Best: Kentucky edition

Can Mark Stoops pull of an early signature win against a possibly distracted Tide team? - Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

For Bama, the weight of the cross they must bear grows with each week...will it break their backs, or will they continue their climb to the mountaintop?

"If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles...if you do not know your enemy and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle." Sun Tzu, Art of War

In his time at Alabama, Nick Saban has proven one thing if he has proven nothing: he is a master of preparation, a hyper-compelled, obsessive attendant of detail and minutia. It is what has made him the most feared, and loathed, coach in the landscape of college football, a man alternately respected, feared and despised by competitors and rival fan bases. The subject of YouTube hate diatribes, journalist scorn and the venomous frothing of rivals, Saban has carved a niche atop college football by knowing his enemies, diagnosing their respective weaknesses, and picking them apart through the "death by a thousand cuts"philosophy and the python-like constriction waged by his crimson clad automatons.

Make no mistake: Saban knows his enemy. But five games into the 2013 campaign, with the El Dorado of a third consecutive championship hovering in the distance like a mirage, does Saban's team know itself?

In each of its five games, the Crimson Tide has been somewhat schizophrenic, Sybil-like, shifting personality from week to week. In week one, it was the stifling defense. In week two, the defense was strafed while the offense flourished. In week three, the team struggled on both sides of the ball, appearing marginally effective at best, disinterested and unfocused at worst. Since the Ole Miss win in week four, Alabama has begun to emerge from its chrysalis, its still-wet wings unable to fully bear the burden of flight. Will we see the full glory of its evolution and development this week? Will the Tide finally become a fully-functioning weapon of Our Dark Lord's bidding?...

Kentucky. Big Blue. They are to basketball what the Crimson Tide is to football. They are kings in their own right, a program loaded with talent and led by one of the best coaches in the business. On the hardwood, of course. But when it comes to the pigskin, we have an immediate reflex to dismiss the Wildcats when on grass (blue or otherwise). And rightfully so, as the success of the Wildcat football team has been relatively non-existent in recent decades.

As dismissive as some would like to be, when one considers the situation in which Alabama finds itself, there are real concerns. Yes, Alabama has dominated its infrequent contests with this particular SEC East counterpart. But as Our Dark Lord constantly reminds us, the team can't get along on the accomplishments of yesteryear, as each team must carve anew that path to the Promised Land of the BCS Championship Game. For Alabama, the next chop must fall true upon the trunk of Kentucky, and quite simply, they must be felled for the journey to continue for the Tide.

As has been the case in several other contests this year, the Crimson Tide should be expected to thrive against a Wildcat team that, quite frankly, is not even in the middle of the SEC pack this season under first year head coach Mark Stoops. Stoops has an impressive resume not unlike that of ODL, as he rose through the ranks of college football as a defensive backs coach at Miami, with stops at Arizona (during his brother Mike's tenure) and Florida State. At every stop, Stoops' defenses have performed fairly impressive turnarounds, and he has several NFL playmakers in his pedigree (Antrel Rolle and Ed Reed, among others). While Stoops' first Wildcat incarnation this year is not likely to challenge for supremacy in the East or the SEC at large, he is setting the foundation of what will undoubtedly become a stronger program in future years...that is, before his talents are noticed and a larger program whisks him off to a more football-centric locale.

This game, though, is not about the future, but rather the present. And in the present, Kentucky, anti-powerhouse that it is, is not the chief haint of the Crimson Tide program. Kentucky will put up a worthy battle to be sure, for a while, but the real Boo Radley lurking behind the curtains next door for Bama is the external distraction of controversy, of wearing the champion's bull's eye on one's back, of being the king of the hill, resting precariously on the pivot point between terra firma and the ephemeral ether of dynastic achievement.

That continues to be the 5,000 pound pachyderm in Alabama's crimson-colored boudoir: can Alabama continue to stay mentally focused and razor-sharp amidst the tempest of play-for-pay, a tainted coaching staff, a dynamic playmaker whose future remains undetermined and the ever-increasing weight of the championship cross the team must bear? How many times can these young men be counted upon to parry off the clutter, brush aside the rust and residue that accumulates on the armor of the battle-hardened, sharpen their weapons of war and live to fight another day?

That question remains unanswered, and it likely will until either the Tide is finally felled by the charmed arrow of an undeserving archer, the war hammer of fellow SEC West brute LSU, or the team that could ultimately serve as the Tide's underdog foil in the National Championship Game.

Despite the uncertainty of the current epoch, for the time being, the Tide is in and rolling. Whether this year's squad matches the talent, integrity or record of past Crimson Tide teams is, at this point, irrelevant. All that matters in the moment is what the team can accomplish this week, on the road, against a Kentucky team that is a notch above where most figured they would be in Stoops' first season at the helm. And after Big Blue put the scare of a lifetime into the Old Ball Coach and a Jadeveon-less Gamecock squad last week, it appears Kentucky is as likely as any among the handful of future opponents to be the team that fires the enchanted ballista that shatters the crimson phalanx.

Close ranks, folks...for the next four weeks, forget about the records of our respective opponents. Remember what transpired on our own turf in '09 against a hapless UT squad that supposedly never had a chance to beat us. Remember how a still-green dual-threat freshman quarterback came into BDS and shredded Saban's vaunted defense as the Tide fell in defeat before the home crowd last year. Remember forever-fratboy Steven Garcia channeling his inner Joe Montana in 2010 and felling the Tide. All it takes is for one team to play the perfect game, and for the Tide to flounder, to end Alabama's dreams of a repeat-repeat. Though Kentucky is an unlikely candidate, that possibility always remains a salient one.

Chances are, Bama will do what Bama does: they will power up the Death Star, dial in Lexington, and obliterate the Wildcats quickly and efficiently. But in the due process of our weekly ritual, let us take a closer look at a few keys to this week's game...

  • By this time of the season, we are weary of hearing about this, but the mental clutter has failed to dissipate. Rather, it has grown stronger since week one of the season. When the year started, the Tide carried the unwieldy weight of expectation for a team coming off its second consecutive win in the BCSNCG. Add to that the pressure of breaking in a new offensive line, finding playmakers among an unseasoned corps of defensive backs, and simply keeping a team that could do little wrong grounded and focused on the task at hand. If Saban and the Tide do repeat, it may be Saban's finest coaching job...ever. However, the hydra has many heads, and several of the most vociferous have reared since the first pigskin was kicked aloft. The story of former Tide RT DJ Fluker's acceptance of pay from an agent while at the Capstone was the first volley fired across the bow of the mighty crimson warship, only to be revisited with the recent revelations regarding star safety Ha-Ha Clinton Dix's acceptance of a loan from a member of the Bama coaching staff in violation of NCAA regulations. Add in some significant tomfoolery by dependable linebacker Trey DePriest and defensive back Geno Smith, and the Tide has endured more mental clutter than many men their age could reasonably be expected to withstand. When a program is on top, it must be prepared to endure the slings and arrows of those who dwell beneath them. This topic has been discussed in this space many times before, because it is something that cannot be ignored. The constant vigilance of ODL is required to keep the collective mind of the team right, and even then, it only really takes one distracted starter to sleep while on watch for catastrophe to strike. We can't underestimate this factor against a hungry team from Kentucky, as like the Celts who tussled with the Roman Legions, their undisciplined blue hordes are thirsty for blood and hungry for the prestige of knocking off the current emperor.
  • One interesting match-up will feature Alabama's OL/ RB's versus the Kentucky defensive front 7. While Kentucky is not known as a powerhouse defense, this could shape up to be one of the more pivotal close-quarters battles of the game for the Tide. There is no question that last year's offensive line was able to maul at will, flipping the switch on its road-grader capability at the drop of the hat as it did on the SEC's largest stage against Georgia last year. This year's line is a different animal, as recounted on this blog many times previously. Most critics of Alabama look to the line's struggles against an undermanned Colorado State defense several weeks ago as demonstrative of the chink in Bama's armor, an area of weakness that had until recently been its greatest strength. Students of Alabama football also know that the team has a tendency to play down to the level of competition on many occasions, setting up a defining moment for Alabama's still-jelling offensive line in tomorrow's game. Will they flourish against an under-talented Wildcat defensive front 7? They'll be without playmaking defensive end Bud Dupree, but that doesn't mean a struggling Alabama line won't have trouble with UK's defense. Much will be indicated by the Tide's performance in this game. If they can go out and dominate the line of scrimmage, then improvement can be claimed, and fans of the Tide will be more comfortable with the progress that is being made in the weeks leading up to a defining showdown against LSU. But if the Tide line should struggle, it could represent a bad moon rising over Bama to say the least, as by this point in the year, one cannot continue to blame poor offensive line play on discontinuity and lack of chemistry.
  • Will the Tide continue to see contributions from freshmen starters? There's an old football axiom that states a team can count on losing at least one game for every freshman it must start. Fortunately, it appears Alabama is on the right side of that equation at the present time. But Saban discussed injecting yet another freshman starter into the mix in the near future, as he has indicated his to intent to put freshman OL Grant Hill to work amongst the best five blockers on this team. Does this speak to Hill's ability, or Alabama's desperation? It could be one or the other, or some combination of both. Regardless, the more freshmen who enter the game, the more likely fans are to see the occasional breakdown in coverage, or the random blown assignment. Once enraptured in the flurry of the SEC schedule, such errors among the inexperienced can lead to problems that can manifest themselves in wins and losses. Will this Tide team's reliance on youth come back to bite them, whether this week, or the next, or the week after that? Again, time will tell.
  • I don't think I've seen this discussed here this week, and that may be due to some lurking desire to avoid the following topic altogether. But I'll go ahead and say it, superstition be damned...has TJ Yeldon forgotten how to securely carry the ball? Despite Drake's recent emergence, Yeldon is the unmistakable workhorse of the offense, and other than AJ McCarron, he is probably Bama's most important offensive player. However, Yeldon has developed a bit of a trend in regard to ball security dating back to last year, and while most of those fumbles have not been damaging ones, several have made an impact in their respective games. Think back to last year's Texas A&M game, if you dare. More recently, we've seen the leading RB in Bama's stable put the ball on the turf at least two times this season. Whether those drops were caused by a poor QB-to-RB exchange or operator error at the running back position, they all count the same on the scoreboard. Fumbles are the kind of thing that can literally change the dynamic of a game and keep a team like Kentucky nipping at the heels of a Bama team with superior firepower. Yeldon's ball security issues are something that must be resolved, pronto. While we may be able to weather a turnover against the likes of the Wildcats, against other teams on our schedule, such a momentary lapse of consciousness could result in an L.
  • Can AJ McCarron exploit the Wildcats' rather thin but talented corps of defensive backs? Prior to the season, UK's defensive back field was a dumpster fire: injuries and inexperience were the letters of the day. Things were so bad that Stoops ushered in JuCo transfer defensive back Nate Willis in August...and went on to project him as the starter despite his unfamiliarity with the program and scheme. Norris has learned on the quick, and Kentucky currently fields the 24th ranked pass defense in the nation, which is respectable. While they are still thin, they have talented players at defensive back. They are largely untested, but they did, to an extent, keep Mr. Heisman Contender Teddy Bridgewater in check in the Wildcats' loss to Louisville. Can the Wildcats compete at that level against Alabama? Louisville doesn't have the stable of wide receivers that currently reside at the Capstone, but if Kentucky can frustrate the Bama WRs and limit McCarron to the short- and medium-range passing game, the struggles of the offensive line and run game could be magnified. If Bama has early success in the run game and the Wildcats stick with their propensity of stacking eight in the box, they may be victimized in the seam by the likes of Christion Jones and OJ Howard. The Wildcat defense has struggled at times this year against the play-action passing game, and that is Alabama's bread-and-butter. For Bama to assert dominance early, they'll need a good run-pass balance, effective running on first down to make the defense commit to the box, and McCarron's usual laser-strike accurate passes to the playmakers. Because the Wildcat defense as a whole lacks quality depth, and because Alabama's receiver corps is so deep, I think that the second half could see the development of explosive passing plays due to YAC as the DB's tire.
  • The Tide's defense appears to be rolling at this point in the season, putting together a string of 12 quarters without a touchdown. Not since the barn-burner against aTm has an opponent crossed the plane on this D, and Bama's defense, with heavy contributions from the second and third string, held a rather terrible Georgia State offense to fewer than 200 yards last week. But the Wildcat offense will present a unique challenge for the Tide defense. This Kentucky offense has several of the trademarks of the less mediocre teams the Cats have fielded in the last decade and a half: an ample quarterback with some degree of athleticism, a shifty, quick athlete who can line up in numerous positions (think Randall Cobb), jet-pack wide receivers who can stretch the field vertically, an adequate line and decent running back talent. UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown is known for employing the spread and some Air Raid principles, and despite presumed starting QB (and Alabama native) Jalen Whitlow's limitations as a passer, they are a team that will toss the ball around a good bit. That's not to say that they won't be simply manhandled by a Tide defense that is hitting its stride, but it will be interesting to see how Alabama defenses these particular skill players and their version of the spread. Kentucky is an offense that employs a great deal of misdirection, and surprisingly, they have some of the speed necessary to take advantage of such schematics. Alabama is an aggressive, relentless defense, but true to Saban's prior teams, they are typically gap-sound and adhere to the kind of disciplined zone-man strategy that ODL often employs. Whitlow, a dual-threat style QB, is expected to start in front of early season starter and pocket passer Maxwell Smith, adding an extra wrinkle to what the Wildcat offense can throw at Kirby Smart. Alabama has at times struggled with mobile quarterbacks, so it will be interesting to see how the Tide schemes around Whitlow's unique skill set.

While Kentucky is decidedly not an elite level SEC team, they do have enough talent to cause a furrow of concern if the Tide fails to show up defensively, or if the offense struggles early, or if turnovers become an issue to one extent or another. It's the same yarn we could spin about any of the lesser opponents on the Bama schedule year in and year out. Saban employs a "respect every opponent" mentality, and it is inherent in his teams, despite their inclination to sometimes play to the level of competition.

Truth be told, there's no reason that Alabama should lose this game. But there are plenty of reasons they could stumble, and such a misstep would spell the Waterloo for a Crimson Tide team in its quest for the seemingly unattainable, the Sangreal, the Lost Ark, that thing most would have considered impossible when ODL came to Tuscaloosa with a purpose and a mission to restore the glory of the Crimson Tide via his patented Process ©.

The Tide is entering the final half of the march into Mordor, and though these young men may grow weary with the weight of the ring they've been selected to bear, destiny and their persistence will determine whether or not they will succeed. And while Kentucky may not represent the ultimate threat to the Crimson Tide's reign, it is but one of the remaining pickets that must be felled on the way to legend.

If things go as planned, that march will continue and the Tide will live to fight the next battle. The alternative, however, is far less savory. As always, prepare for the worst....hope for the best.

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