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Alabama Football 2013 Season Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Though enthusiasm is high in the Bluegrass State, reality will undoubtedly come home to roost. Chin up, UK, there's always basketball season...

Enthusiasm is high in Stoops first year at UK
Enthusiasm is high in Stoops first year at UK

We've already predicted the season's wins and losses for each SEC school, including Kentucky. Now we'll work backwards through the 2013 Alabama schedule and preview each SEC game, ending with Va Tech.

Kentucky Wildcats

The Kentucky Wildcats. The much maligned, unexplosive, talent-deprived basketball school that has been supplanted in football at the moment by their brethren in Louisville, has the indubitable misfortune of meeting our beloved Crimson Tide this year, and subsequently, taking the beating of their lives.

But as we all know, regardless of the apparent weakness of the week’s opponent, an upset lurks around every corner. A few mental lapses, an unlucky bounce here or there, an injury to a key starter, and we could find ourselves with a back-alley knife fight on our hands. Even against the lowly Wildcats.

That said, let us shine the blinding light of day on this match-up and take a stab at the potential outcomes.

What Happened Last Year?

Alabama and Kentucky did not meet on the football field last year, as the Wildcats appear on the Tide’s schedule this year as one of two rotating opponents from the SEC East. The last time the two teams met was in 2009, when the Tide rolled to a 38-20 victory that was more lop-sided than the score would indicate.

As far as the respective records, Bama finished 13-1 (7-1 SEC) while winning the NC. UK finished at 2-10 (0-8 SEC). These teams would appear to be traveling on opposite trajectories, but many in Wildcat Nation think a rebirth of their program under new head coach Mark Stoops is just around the corner.

How Does Kentucky Look In 2013?

This question can be answered with an oft-used, poetic phrase: "hot gahbage." The Wildcats had a terrible 2012, even by their rather low standards for football. Let’s face it, UK is to basketball what we are to football. Though there is enthusiasm brimming over with the hire of Stoops, the reality of the situation is that any positive departure from last year’s trend will be seen as an improvement. Even with Stoops resuscitating the program, any modicum of true success at Kentucky will be judged over the span of years, not games.

The Wildcats struggled mightily last year, dropping games to in-state rivals Louisville and upstart Western Kentucky (pre-Petrino). The lone positive for the Wildcats in their previous campaign was their win over Kent State, a team which surprised many by finishing the season with 11 wins. (Go Big Blue!) UK finished last season in the bottom half of the nation in all major offensive and defensive categories, though their defense does contain a few playmakers.

The positive takeaway from Stoops’ tenure thus far is that he has recruited surprisingly well, and he did have success turning a floundering FSU defense into a respected and nationally ranked unit. The Kentucky faithful hope to see a repeat of that turn-around, as the cupboard is not bare, defensively speaking. With Stoops’ style of 4-3 scheme in place, the game plan will play to the strengths of his current personnel. Well, kinda. Let’s look at this in more depth.

The type of scheme Stoops ran at Florida State, and the scheme he has presumably implemented at UK, is a variety of a Cover 2, man under defense. This means that the base set is a 4-3, with two safeties playing deep while the corners play tight man coverage underneath. Because of the deep safety help over the top, the CBs can afford to play aggressively underneath knowing that there is back-up.

To contain the run with this type of defense, the front 7 must be strong and instinctual, as the bulk of the run defense will fall upon their shoulders. The success of this defense is predicated on great end play and strong personnel at the safety position. UK in good shape up front, with Alvin "Bud" Dupree (90 tackles, 6.5 sacks) moving outside, and with still-young ends Za’Darius Smith and Jason Hatcher filling the pass-rushing end role nicely. LB Avery Williamson has been mentioned in the pre-season, but beyond him, the depth at linebacker is a question mark. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that UK has a few SEC caliber players in the front 7, and that will help them tremendously. The front half of the Wildcat defense seems to fit the Stoops template nicely.

The trouble is the back half. The UK secondary is extremely thin in terms of both experience and talent. Safety play has been questionable, and, as previously mentioned, it is a key to this style of defense. The Wildcats are in such bad shape in the secondary that Stoops’ recently admitted that recent (as in August) Juco signee Nate Willis has a strong chance of starting at corner this year. Either Willis is the greatest CB to come through UK in a while, or the Cats are really going to struggle in the defensive backfield. Ouch.

Offensively, the picture is not much better. There is still a QB competition going on to fill that critical role in the new "Air Raid" scheme initiated under the Stoops regime. While we’ve seen teams have great success with the style of offense (and we know it frustrates the hell out of Our Dark Lord), generally, a team must be stacked with talent at QB and wide receiver for it to be effective against elite defenses.

It’s not that the UK cupboard is bare offensively, but one would question whether enough of the parts are there, and with enough experience, to make much of a splash in Stoops’ first season. Maxwell Smith is the most experienced QB in the UK stable, but he is also as frail as a Faberge egg. Jason Whitlow offers a little bit more of a read-option style at QB, but he has little experience at this level. Patrick Towles is intriguing and better fits the pro-style quarterback template at 6’5", 225 lbs with a cannon of an arm. However, it will take a little seasoning before he can be expected to be productive against SEC caliber defenses.

The UK line will be hit or miss, so the running game could struggle despite a deep stable of adequate running backs. Seconded for the stable of wide receivers, which was aided greatly by the addition of several juco transfers in the offseason. But all the receivers in the world won’t help an offense if the quarterbacking is poor, so many mysteries remain for the Wildcats as the season begins.

How Kentucky Might Win

Truthfully, a Kentucky win would require a great deal of assistance from the Crimson Tide, i.e. rampant turnovers, poor special teams play, possibly even injuries to key starters. Even then, Kentucky would really need Fate suited up in Wildcat blue to pull off a victory of this magnitude in Stoops’ first season at the helm. To even have a shot, Kentucky would need error-free football from both units. If they were to somehow catch a complacent Tide napping in the first quarter, they could jump out to an early lead and bruise the Bama psyche. Then again, if past history serves as any evidence, poking the bear in the first quarter has typically not graded out for our competitors (aTm being the recent outlier). Even if the Tide was to spot the Cats a couple touchdowns, it would still likely be only a matter of time before the Alabama offense ignited and quelled the insurrection.

Why Alabama Might Win:

By getting off of the bus (tips houndstooth gump hat accordingly). Alabama will win unless they follow the above-described template for failure. If Alabama gets up early by scoring on their initial drive, then holding UK fruitless on their first offensive possession, woe be unto the Sea of Blue, as the Crimson Tide will wash over everything in its path. The Tide has too many offensive weapons, particularly at QB and in the WR corps, for Kentucky’s undermanned defense to hang for four quarters. Their secondary will be winded while chasing our 37 Heisman-candidate receivers. The Wildcat run defense will offer some resistance initially, but again, they will not be able to hold back the incoming Tide. The key will be talented depth, as the fresh legs at running back for Alabama will make a mockery of even a strong defensive front by the time the second half rolls around.

What I Think Will Happen:

Seriously? Y’all know how this is about to go down. TJ Yeldon will run for over 100 yards and cement his 14th Heisman. Kenyan Drake/ Derrick Henry/ Jalston Fowler/ (*insert 5* RB second stringer here) should also go over 100 in this game. The receivers and AJ will have a field day. This is one of those games in which the defense doesn’t have to be dominant, because the mismatches vs. the Bama offense are so glaringly potent. All gumping aside, I also expect our defense to score in this game, as the Wildcats just don’t have the legs and bodies to endure four quarters of our style of football.

This could get ugly, folks. There will be blood.

08/31/13 vs Virginia Tech Atlanta, GA
09/14/13 at Texas A&M * TV College Station, Texas ?
09/21/13 vs. Colorado State Tuscaloosa, Ala. WIN
09/28/13 vs. Ole Miss * Tuscaloosa, Ala. ?
10/05/13 vs. Georgia State Tuscaloosa, Ala. WIN
10/12/13 at Kentucky * Lexington, Ky. WIN
10/19/13 vs. Arkansas * Tuscaloosa, Ala. WIN
10/26/13 vs. Tennessee * Tuscaloosa, Ala. WIN
11/09/13 vs. LSU * Tuscaloosa, Ala. WIN
11/16/13 at Mississippi State * Starkville, Miss. WIN
11/23/13 vs. Chattanooga Tuscaloosa, Ala. WIN
11/30/13 at Auburn * Auburn, Ala. WIN