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Hope for the Best: Kentucky edition

While Kentucky may not represent the pinnacle of SEC powerhouses, the roster is dotted with extra-large play-makers who can cause Alabama problems

South Carolina v Kentucky
Mark Stoops’ seat may be getting hotter, but an upset of Alabama would buy good will.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky is to basketball what Alabama is to football: a historical powerhouse with a rich heritage of championships and almost built-in talent bases primed for their respective disciplines. In that regard, the two schools have a kinship, a similarity, a certain bond that emanates from routine success in a given area of expertise.

However, looking solely through the pigskin lens of college football, the teams couldn’t be more different. True, they share a lineage as schools at which the great Paul Bear Bryant once coached. But aside from that, the pedigree of the Alabama Crimson Tide has far eclipsed that of their brethren to the north, just as Kentucky’s on-court accomplishments dwarf those of the Crimson Tide.

What matters now, at this moment, is football, and in that regard, Alabama is firmly entrenched as the Once and Future King of the college domain. Sure, there will be challenges, but over the long haul of the last decade, no team has been as routinely dominant as Alabama.

While Alabama appears an early favorite to contend for a repeat College Football Championship after a good start, and a win over thorn-in-the-saddle Ole Miss in Week 3, there are many battles left for this team to fight. Some will pose a legitimate threat to Alabama’s supremacy…others, like Kentucky, will be mere pitched fights required for passage on the road to an SEC Championship.

While Kentucky has little business contending with Alabama on the football field this season, that’s not to say that they couldn’t pull off a shocker in front of the Tide’s home crowd. Firstly, Alabama typically underperforms at Bryant-Denny, with losses to Texas A&M (2012), Ole Miss (2015) and LSU (2011) all coming on the Tide’s own stomping grounds. OF course, all three of those teams were better equipped to match fisticuffs with the Tide than the current Kentucky roster. But the point is, sometimes Alabama plays lackadaisical football in front of the home crowd, a dangerous proposition when facing any SEC team (regardless of how lowly that team is perceived to be.)

With elite size defensively, the Wildcats have the players to match-up well with some of the Tide’s premiere playmakers. That size has not necessarily translated to great performance in 2016, as Lee Corso famously called the Kentucky defense (to paraphrase) the worst defense in the history of football. The offense, always the calling card of the Wildcat team since the days of Hal Mumme, has also fallen on hard times, leading to an overall underwhelming product that head coach Mark Stoops is putting on the field this season.

It’s easy to write off Kentucky as an easy W for the Tide, but to do so is to underestimate the importance of match-ups. And at least defensively, the Wildcats may be able to break even in that regard, with a huge defensive interior and a secondary that sports to corners taller than 6-3.

Can the Wildcats beat Alabama? The smart money says no. But can they do enough, with a little help from Alabama miscues and playcalling, to keep the game close and potentially score a shocking upset? That is a resounding yes.

How does Kentucky match-up against Alabama’s strengths? Let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Kentucky defense

Back to Corso’s comment about the quality of the Wildcat defense, we can resoundingly place his words in the column of hyperbole (which we’ve come to expect from the one-time Louisville coach). Claiming that UK has the worst defense is history is a broad, bold claim to say the least, and there really aren’t any metrics that justify such a comparison.

That said, the Kentucky defense has definitely underperformed to date. After all, Stoops is the defensive Brainiac who turned around the Arizona defense and stocked it with talent. He took the reins of a Florida State defense running erratic despite a talented roster, and he broke that defensive bronco and made it prance like a Tennessee Walker. There’s no doubting Stoops’ credibility as a defensive mastermind and coach.

But one can doubt his effectiveness as a head coach. After winning the job at Kentucky, Stoops elected to hire his defensive line coach at Florida State, D.J. Eliot, to lead the defense in Kentucky blue. To date, it has been a disaster. Eliot is clearly out of his league, so much so that fans have felt justified calling for his head in his third season in the Bluegrass State. Eliot, like Stoops, likes the multiple (3-4, 4-3, nickel) approach for his defense, and Kentucky first had to recruit players to flesh out such a system, buying Eliot an early pass with fans and critics. But now that the roster has such talent, the lack of results has caused something of an uproar for those Kentucky fans not biding their time for basketball season, which has bled over into the job security of the head coach himself.

As a result, Stoops recently announced (after the Wildcats were shelled for 89 points in their first two games while giving up 528 yards per game of offense – good for 122nd out of 128 teams nationally) that he would be “much more involved” in the Kentucky defense. He already designed the defense, recruited the talent, and oversaw the defensive operations at Kentucky. The only way he could get more involved was by taking on play-calling duties, something many believe he has done.

This transition led to immediate improvement, as the Wildcats went on to beat South Carolina last week, allowing only 268 yards of total offense to an admittedly horrible Gamecock offense. Will that success continue when the Wildcats face Alabama? Probably not, and here are a few reasons why.

First of all, for any defense, the particular system Alabama has run offensively in the first few weeks of the season is extremely difficult to defense. With all of the motion: the jet sweeps, the wide receiver screens, the ability to run zone read option looks out of the pistol, the edge passing game…it’s all just a lot to expect a defense to account for against a team studded with five-star talent. Especially for a defense that is already underperforming against more traditional offensive game plans. Eliot is not on the level of Kiffin as a play-caller, simply put, and in a battle of coaching wits, the decided advantage goes to Lane.

That aside, one of the strengths of the Kentucky defense is their excellent size. The interior of the defensive line, with nose Matt Elam (6-7, 360 pounds) and tackle Adrian Middleton (6-3, 303 pounds) form the stout spine of the Wildcat run defense. The secondary has fantastic height, with starting corners Chris Westry (6-4, 195 pounds) and Derrick Baity (6-3, 182 pounds) displaying unusually good height for defensive backs.

For all the size, however, the Wildcats defense hasn’t been particularly good at anything they’ve been asked to accomplish early on. They gave up 89 points to offensive powerhouses Southern Miss and Florida (sartalics implied), which prompted Corso’s aforementioned proclamation.

Their ineffectiveness can’t be pinned on one part of the defense or the other, as both run and pass have struggled. Against the pass, Kentucky allows 258 yards per game (even with the win over pass-deprived South Carolina factored in), good for a whopping 15 yards per catch average. The sad thing is, the defensive backs are not as awful as those numbers would indicate. In fact, they’re not bad at all. The problem comes when the pass rush is not only ineffective, but non-existent. Last season, the Wildcats were last in the league in sacks with only 15, and things aren’t looking that much better in 2016. The struggles in the pass rush place pressure on the (at least) adequate defensive backs, as no defensive back regardless of quality can cover free-running wide receivers for five…six…seven seconds.

The run defense has been puzzlingly bad as well, with man-mountains like Elam, Middleton, Naquez Pringle (6-3, 320 pounds) and Tymere Dubose (6-5, 320 pounds) clogging up the interior running lanes in the two-deep. The ends are not horrible, with veterans Courtney Miggins (6-5, 285 pounds) and Alvonte Bell (6-5, 260 pounds) mainly responsible for pass rush, and for forcing the run inside. The problem most likely comes in the form of the linebackers, who while workable, sometimes have trouble selecting gaps and minding responsibilities. The Wildcat front typically two-gaps when aligned in a 3-4, which often leaves linebackers to clean up the remaining gaps versus interior run plays. Communication is key, as are quick, instinctual reads. If those peripheral areas are not on point, a 3-4 run defense can definitely suffer. Such is likely the case with the Wildcats. Those problems seem to persist regardless of whether they’re in the 3-4 or the 4-3, so it’s probably not a system issue.

Not to mention, the Wildcats are extremely young across the board, as they had to replace five of seven starters in the front seven, and six of their seven top tacklers. Those new players will become more fluid and instinctual in time, but in the early going, the learning curve for the younger linebackers has been somewhat brutal.

While size alone doesn’t translate to effectiveness (and it certainly hasn’t for the Wildcats previously this season), there is the potential to eliminate some of Alabama’s usual mismatches at skill positions. Alabama has an elite receiving corps, coupled with O.J. Howard at tight end, and the Tide has leveraged that into a physical passing game that allows quarterback Jalen Hurts to target the taller receivers, giving them a chance to physically dominate smaller defensive backs. Such won’t be the case this week, so Hurts will need sharp, clean passing on the short to intermediate routes, and far more precision in the deep passing game than Alabama has gotten to date.

Speaking of the passing game, the Tide offense can overrule any of the size advantage the Wildcat secondary may naturally have with a game plan not unlike the one used against Ole Miss two weeks ago. Though dramatically different defenses in scheme, like Ole Miss, Kentucky has a heavy, run-stopping presence in the interior comprised of huge men, and a secondary that is physical and active. Against the Rebels, Kiffin countered this with a horizontal passing game, and a slow-developing sideline-to-sideline running game utilizing sweeps early to wear the big men in the middle down while they tracked the Tide backs to the edges.

This would be an effective tactic early against Kentucky. So much of what Alabama does on offense is built to mitigate risk. The Tide in past years (like 2015) was a power-punching brawler that would just march in flat-footed and pound a defense into submission with running game body-blows until the opponent simply couldn’t take it anymore and uttered the figurative “no mas.” The 2016 edition of the Tide offense couldn’t be more different in philosophy: the Tide still likes the brutal ground-and-pound stuff, but they prefer to set it up with feints and jabs these days. They like the rope-a-dope. The Tide will put a back to the ropes and wallow for a while to take the starch off an opponent and lull them into a false sense of comfort. Like Ali, Alabama will wait for the opportune moment to attack, land a flurry of power punches, come at an opponent from alternating angles, and strike enough blows to end the fight for all intents and purposes.

Expect Kentucky to put up a good fight, and if Alabama tries to force the issue with the downfield passing game, the Wildcats may have more success than many imagine. Those opportunities will surely be there in the latter half of the game if the Tide executes its usual subterfuge early on, but if Kiffin decides to allow Hurts to gun-sling from the hip, it may give Kentucky more chance than they deserve.

Since the Kentucky running defense has been less than stellar, Alabama will try to impose its will on the ground after spreading out the defense and creating some lanes for the Tide’s young backs. The oft-criticized jet sweep is critical in Kiffin’s scheme, as unproductive as it may appear at times in terms of yardage. Kiffin uses those jet sweeps to move linebackers and create overloads on the edge that, when coupled with Alabama’s zone blocking techniques, give Bama mismatches in the ground game. Once Kiffin can hypnotize a linebacker into trailing the ball carrier across the formation on the jet sweep, he can set up a running play in which he pulls a tight end/ fullback as a lead blocker behind a zone-stepping line, thus allowing the back to attack the hole the linebacker created with that movement.

It’s frustrating for some to watch those jet sweeps early on, especially when they go for the typical short gain (or no gain) when a defense sniffs them out. But such is the tactic: he wants them to sniff it out…it’s part of the rope-a-dope. Let a defense have early success sorting out those jet sweeps, so much so that they aggressively attack the ball carrier anytime they see it developing. Once that happens, Kiffin has set the hook, and the running game prospers from the confusion it creates. It’s diabolical, really, and even a disciplined defense will struggle to stop it 100 percent of the time.

Alabama’s offense, if it executes the game plan from previous games, will dominate this Kentucky defense and make them quit. If Kiffin inexplicably gets too cute, Kentucky has the ability to confound and potentially generate turnovers in the passing game if Hurts’ passing on intermediate and deep routes has not improved. Label that task “easy-not easy,” as the parts are there for domination, but the execution will determine the outcome.

The Alabama defense versus the Kentucky offense

Alabama’s defense is fresh off its most dominant performance of the year, albeit it was against Kent State’s struggling offense. Some have raised questions about the Tide’s secondary following a 400+ yard shelling at the hands of Ole Miss two weeks ago, when Chad Kelly used precision passing to throw into buckets, something the Tide won’t face again this year in the regular season.

Kentucky runs what is classified as an “Air Raid” scheme offensively, which is something the Tide has struggled with in the past to an extent. Kevin Sumlin (with a nod to Kliff Kingsbury) ran an effective Air Raid variant at Texas A&M with Johnny Manziel, and Alabama had a hard time adjusting to it (even when the Tide won in 2013, they still couldn’t contain it well.)

That said, Kentucky’s coordinators, Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, are neither Sumlin nor Kingsbury, and neither has demonstrated the ability to light up the scoreboard with this particular style of offense. Gran doesn’t come from an Air Raid coaching tree per se, as many will remember his time at Auburn as an assistant under Tommy Tuberville, as well as stints at Tennessee and Cincinnati in the recent past. The Wildcats like to use Air Raid personnel mostly, with four receiver sets a regular fixture of the offense.

Like Western Kentucky, the Wildcats have a plethora of excellent receiving targets in their rotation, including the likes of Jeff Badet (6-1, 180 pounds), Ryan Timmons (5-10, 198 pounds), Garrett Johnson (5-11, 175 pounds), Dorian Baker (6-3, 208 pounds), Kayaune Ross (6-6, 225 pounds), and Tavin Richardson (6-3, 216 pounds). Quarterback Stephen Johnson (6-2, 185 pounds) is moderately effective at distributing the ball to these many targets, including tight end C.J. Conrad (6-5, 245 pounds). Johnson started the season as the second-stringer prior to an injury to starter Drew Barker, and in two starts he’s had wildly differing outcomes. Against South Carolina last week, he struggled, quite frankly. He’s somewhat mobile, but he’s not Jalen Hurts, and he’ll have to have his best game of his career to put a dent in the Bama defense.

The sheer number of receiving targets at Johnson’s disposal will test the Tide’s secondary like several other teams have this year (Western Kentucky and Ole Miss in particular), so it won’t be anything Alabama hasn’t seen before. But the Tide’s secondary will have to account for size mismatches with the likes of Ross, Baker, and Richardson.

The preference for Kentucky offensively is to spread the ball around early with short passes and screens, not unlike Alabama preferred method of attack in the first half. Once they do, they have several strong running backs, specifically Stephen “Boom” Williams (5-9, 186 pounds), JoJo Kemp (5-10, 200 pounds), and Benny Snell (5-11, 222 pounds). Williams is quick and agile, if somewhat undersized. Kemp, and to a larger extent Snell, are physical, fireplug-like runners who are at home plowing hard yardage behind the huge Kentucky offensive line. The line is comprised exclusively of junior starters, and they average 313.2 pounds across the front five. Left tackle Cole Mosier is an absolute road-grader at 6-6, 335 pounds, and the line is equally adept in pass defense and run defense.

Fortunately for Alabama, the strength of the Tide defense will be matched against the strong Wildcat offensive line, and the Tide hasn’t found an offensive front that can hold them in check so far this season. Even if rusher Tim Williams sits against Kentucky due to an arrest this week, Bama’s pass rush will still be ferocious with Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Da’Ron Payne. Alabama will affect the passer, and Johnson’s mettle will be tested in rigorous fashion by what Jeremy Pruitt and the Tide defense throw at him.

Against the run, Alabama continues to be the gold standard. The Tide may change linebackers and D linemen, but the results remain the same. With Reuben Foster leading a young corps of ‘backers like Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton, supported by safeties Ronnie Harrison and Eddie Jackson, the run defense has been impenetrable for the most part. Kentucky will bang their sturdy backs between the tackles behind that big offensive line, but recent history indicates that the Wildcats won’t have any more success doing so than any of the Tide’s previous opponents.

The best chance for the Wildcats to have success against the Bama defense is through the air, and with their tall receivers, they have the opportunity to make plays with the passing game. To do so, however, they’ll have to find a way to stem the tide of Alabama’s pass rush. Johnson is mobile, but if he never gets a chance to set and make his reads, the Wildcat passing game will wither and die on the vine, just as it did against Florida’s similarly talented secondary.

Kentucky may have to get creative to protect Johnson, possibly moving the pocket, rolling him out, or working from the shotgun. If they can’t find a way to buy him time, however, it won’t matter how tall his receivers are, as he’ll find it hard to target them with his back on the grass.

Special Teams

Bama place-kicker Adam Griffith seems to have found his confidence, as aside from a few misses this season, he has become a reliable option when drives falter in scoring territory. His kickoffs have been a bright spot as well, as he is routinely hammering kicks into the end zone so far.

J.K. Scott continues to be a man-cannon at punter, helping Alabama win the anaconda-like field position control Nick Saban prefers to muster. Scott’s impact on this Tide team can’t be underestimated, as he is automatic most of the time and can flip the field with that boot of his.

Just when Alabama looked to have discovered a return man in safety Eddie Jackson, the Tide saw Xavian Marks have a breakout performance against Kent State. Marks returned a punt for a touchdown, displaying his world-class track burner speed in the process. As Saban pointed out, Marks also allowed two catchable balls to bounce, thus hurting Alabama in the field position department. Saban seemed displeased, but he also expressed his desire to have a non-starter returning kicks if at all possible. So long as Marks can maintain ball discipline and make better decisions fielding kicks, the job is likely his to lose.

Kentucky has a workable punter in freshman Grant McKinness, who is averaging a click over 40 yards per punt with a long of 53 yards. At place kicker, junior Austin MacGinnis is a steady weapon, as though he has gone 6-of-9 so far this season, he has made a long kick of 54 yards, which is impressive distance.

The Wildcats have a few shifty return men of their own, with Charles Walker returning punts. So far this year, the senior has returned six kicks for an average of 18.2 yards per return, and he’s returned one for a touchdown this season.

Returning kicks is the tandem of Sihiem King (who averages 23.3 yards per return) and the running back Snell (25.5 yards per return). Snell is an interesting choice, as he’s more of a bullish back rather than the typical elusive athlete one finds in a kick returner.

Few at this point would be so bold as to forecast a Wildcat win over the Crimson Tide this weekend at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Kentucky has long languished in the football wilderness, and this Stoops’ led unit is not likely to upset the current course of history against the nation’s number one team.

Again, the tale of the tape for Alabama will be more about the Tide than their opponent. Does Alabama play with confidence and discipline? Can Alabama’s defense continue its trajectory of development in the fifth game of the season? Can Alabama become a mistake-free squad that avoids penalties and hangs onto the ball?

These are important questions that must be answered. While Alabama could stutter and stall to a win over an overmatched Kentucky squad, they will not have the luxury of doing so against stronger competition just over the horizon. Alabama must demonstrate an ability (and willingness) to do the seemingly insignificant little things that winners do consistently, play in and play out. That is the trademark of Nick Saban-coached championship football teams, and despite all of the talent on the Tide’s current roster, it is that lineage that this team must meet on the road to history.

We’ll know more soon...hope for the best.