It’s not very often that much of the sense optimism about a football season gets deflated after a 2-1 start, particularly when that one loss comes to the #1 defending national champion. However, that’s exactly where UK finds itself after escaping with a win over Louisville in a disapponting performance and flopping badly against Florida.
We expected the ‘Cats to be 2-1 at this point when the schedule came out and we knew that the 3 games follow would be major challenges. First of those challenges is the number 3 team in the nation: the Alabama Crimson Tide.
A lot of conversation this week has centered around the possibility that Alabama may even be a stronger team that the Gators. I don’t really buy into that at all, but there’s no debating the fact that Alabama has been very impressive against much better competition than Florida has faced.
Alabama has shown balance in its first 4 games, dismantling Virginia Tech, Florida International, North Texas, and Arkansas. The defense has been stifling, allowing only 202.5 yards and 13 points per game, with their best performance coming last week against an Arkansas offense that had scored over 40 in its first two games. The offense has been just as good, racking up nearly 500 yards per game with over 250 passing yards and over 230 yards on the ground.
Alabama entered this season looking very strong across the board. Nick Saban is always going to field a good defense and a good running game and Julio Jones headlined a very talented group of offensive weapons.
However, the quarterback position was a bit of an unknown. It’s never easy to replace a 9 year starter like John Parker Wilson (OK, that’s an exagerration), even though Wilson was never the kind of QB who was going to win a game for you. His replacement, junior Greg McElroy, has been a revelation.
He started his career as a starter in not exactly the most auspicious way. He was barely able to complete a pass in the first half against Virginia Tech, but regrouped very quickly, leading Alabama to a 34-24 win and finishing with 250 yards passing.
He has followed up that second half performance with a 3 game stretch of passing likely better than any stretch in John Parker Wilson’s career. He has completed 48-63 (76.2%) for 708 yards, 6 touchdowns, and nary an interception (yeah, I said “nary”).
If I were putting together a gameplan for Alabama a month ago, I would stack the box and make McElroy win the game by throwing to someone other than Julio Jones. I’m not sure if that’s an option anymore. McElroy has been excellent and Jones, due to injury and strong play from fellow receivers, is fifth on the team in receiving. Jones is back though. He scored a touchdown last game against Arkansas.
In the long run, Jones lack of early production may turn out to benefit the Tide. 5 players other than Jones have at least 7 receptions and 4 of those guys have at least 126 yards receiving. Marquis Maze has been a big time big play threat, going for 191 yards on only 8 catches.
The running game has been excellent in its own right. Saban has 4 offensive players with over 100 yards on the season, headlined by Mark Ingram (61 carries for 347 yards) and Trent Richardson (38 carries for 280 yards).
Alabama’s offensive line is big and bruising. They can protect the quarterback and they can run the ball down your throat. UK’s defensive line has been lackluster to this point, and this will be a very difficult matchup all around.
Amazingly, UK may have a better chance moving the ball against Alabama than consistently stopping Alabama’s offense and that’s more of a compliment to the offense than a dig at the defense.
However, Bammer will be missing one of their stars. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama’s terror of a pass rushing linebacker, will be absent the rest of the season.
Hightower’s injury does not exactly leave the cupboard bare. Nick Saban boasts a First Team Preseason All-SEC pick on the defensive line, at linebacker, and in the secondary. Terrence “Mount” Cody is the most visible member of the defense, quite literally. At 354 pounds with unnatural athleticism, the defensive tackle is a walking mismatch, demanding a double team pretty much all day. Also, Saban hasn’t ruled out pulling a Ditka and playing him at running back a la Refrigerator Perry.
At linebacker, Rolando McClain is the leader. Le’Ron’s little brother was a third team All American last season, a key part of Nick Saban’s 3-4 defensive scheme. McClain is going to make plays all over the field, the goal has to be to have him make the plays 5-7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, not at the line or behind it like Florida’s linebackers did last week.
Javier Arenas, even though he’s better known for big plays in the return game, made All SEC First Team as a corner. He obviously has all the athleticism you could ever ask for and his matchup with Randall Cobb could go a long way in determining whether UK can hang around.
Overall, I do believe that the more traditional style of Alabama makes for a better matchup for the ‘Cats. UK is better athletically than in the past, but Urban Meyer’s offense is almost impossible to stop without athletes of the highest caliber at every position. UK won’t have to worry about Greg McElroy running the spread offense, but they will have to defend an excellent running game and a good matching passing game.
UK is going to have to remain disciplined against the play action and at least hold their own against Alabama’s offensive line.
The offense is likely going to play a big role in the defense’s success as well. If UK is as stagnant on offense as last week, unable to hold on to the ball for more than a few plays, the defense has no shot. Even if they aren’t able to throw the ball on Trevard and company, that running game is going to wear down UK eventually if they are on the field nonstop.
On offense, it’s going to be about protecting Hartline, running the ball, and getting ball to Randall Cobb, UK’s best offensive player. UK has looked good on offense against Miami and Louisville when doing that, but downright awful when they don’t. UK clearly made getting the ball downfield to Chris Matthews a priority last week against Florida, but Matthews demotion from the starting lineup signals to me that UK’s offense will be much more about ball control this week.
I look for UK to start better this week and hang around for the first half against ‘Bama, but eventually succumb to superior size and speed.
Alabama 38 Kentucky 14