[caption id="attachment_324171" align="aligncenter" width="1464"] (Kent Gidley/Getty Images)
An ugly win is better than a pretty loss and that's what Kentucky delivered against Vanderbilt at Kroger Field. Now it is measuring stick time for the program with the Wildcats heading to Tuscaloosa to face the No. 1 team in college football. It's time to see where they stand.
No hiding from the fact that this will be a tall task and the large spread is the biggest the program has faced since 2016. However, this is what you sign up for when you come to play in the SEC and it's time for Kentucky to let it loose at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Nuts and Bolts
When Alabama convinced Nick Saban to leave the Miami Dolphins following the 2006 season, many believed the Tide had just hired the best coach in college football. What has occurred in the last 13 years has been really hard to believe. Alabama has been crowned a national champion five times with six SEC championships and a boatload of first round picks in the NFL Draft. Saban is the best to ever do it in college football and he has once again made Alabama this sport's finest program.
This season, the Tide had major shoes to fill with Tua Tagovailoa moving onto the NFL after breaking every Alabama pass record the last two seasons after leading a major second half comeback to beat Georgia for the 2017 national title. With a five-star freshman Bryce Young coming in from California, many thought the Tide would go young again. However, a seasoned veteran is taking advantage of his opportunity.
Mac Jones is posting some absurd numbers as he has a QB rating over 200 and is pacing the top scoring offense in college football. He is doing it all behind the maybe the best offensive line in the country in addition to a running back and wide receiver who also might be the best players at their individual positions. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is pushing all of the right buttons and the Tide are scary good on offense. The defense isn't too bad either.
This will be the 41st meeting between the two programs and Alabama owns a commanding 37-2-1 series lead. That is domination. We all know about UK's historic win in 1997, but 1922 was the only other time the Big Blue Nation has seen the Wildcats defeat the Crimson Tide. However, UK has remained competitive in most recent meetings at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Out in the desert, Alabama is laying a large 30 points with a total of 58.5. That's a projected final score around 44-14. The Tide are 4-2 ATS this season while UK sits at 3-4. This will be the 14th time in the last five seasons where Bama has been favored by at least four touchdowns in a conference matchup and they are 7-5-1 ATS in those instances. UK is 8-1-1 ATS in their last 10 when unranked and playing a ranked foe.
Body blows and haymakers. That's what this Alabama offense can deliver on a every down basis. The Tide are putting up nearly 50 points per game while Mac Jones (No. 10) has thrown for over 400 yards four separate times with Najee Harris (No. 22) rushing for an SEC leading 714 yards. This is a very balanced attack and they can hit you from all over the place.
The efficiency at which this offense operates at is downright scary. Alabama is putting up a robust 7.95 yards per play and trails only Ole Miss in first downs per game, but only by a couple and it's worth noting the Rebels run more than 11 snaps per outing. They just bludgeon you snap after snap.
Jones has a passing success rate of 62.71% while Harris has a rushing success rate of 54.84% and top wideout DeVonta Smith (No. 6) has a receiving success rate of 66.67%. These are numbers backed with a large number of attempts and proves the Tide constantly stay ahead of the chains and keep the orange sticks moving up and down the field. Then there is the big play factor.
Harris and backup running back Brian Robinson Jr. (No. 4) have produced 29 rushes of 10-plus yards. Z wide receiver John Metchie III (No. 8) has an amazing big play rate of 42.42% and leads the SEC averaging 21.54 yards per reception. They have scored four touchdowns from 40-plus yards out and can strike at any moment.
Jones takes his fair share of deep shots and that is shown in the numbers. He is putting up over 12 yards per attempt and has a 27.68% big play rate. However, he's still able to complete over 78% of his throws and has been able to avoid bad plays with a paltry 3.8% sack rate and just 12 of his 177 throws have ended with an interception of pass break-up. The redshirt junior is locked in and playing a very high level. He has some major arm talent.
The loss of Jaylen Waddle was a killer as he was the most explosive player in college football and perhaps the best wide receiver in the country. However, Smith is still around. The senior is pretty small for an X wide receiver at 6-1 and 175 pounds, but he has big time game. Smith leads Alabama with 56 receptions and eight touchdowns and has recorded at least six grabs in every game this season. In the first full game without Waddle, he got a heavy workload with 11 catches on 15 targets as he went for over 200 receiving yards against a strong Mississippi State defense.
They will throw the ball all over the yard, but they aren't afraid to grind out yards. To keep a filthy Georgia pass rush at bay, Harris logged 31 carries and churned out tough yards. He has received at least 20 carries in four consecutive games and that will continue with redshirt freshman and former five-star Trey Sanders being lost
to injury. He also is used in the pass game with 20 receptions and has been solid in pass protection. He is on his way to becoming an All-American.
In the trenches, Alabama starts two former five-stars at both tackle spots and has three former top-200 players at the interior spots. Each is a future NFL Draft pick and weighs at least 312 pounds. This has been the best offensive line in the SEC to this point. They have been excellent in pass protection on top of ranking in the top-35
in every offensive line metric. They are the real deal and they are large in the trenches.
This offense checks every box, but they haven't been great at finishing drives. The Tide are putting up less than five points per scoring opportunity and in their last game against Mississippi State this became a bit of an issue. For Kentucky to have a chance, they have to be able to get stops in and around the red zone.
Pete Golding is now in his second season as the defensive coordinator at Alabama and it has been specifically under his watch where we've seen the identity change. Nick Saban now realizes it's more about creating explosive plays on offense and being able to win games 44-40 opposed to depending on your defense to smother every offense. This is not your typical Alabama defense, but they are still pretty good.
This defense still ranks high in most statistical measures and sits at 12th
in SP+'s defensive efficiency rankings, but that is a pretty substantial drop off for a program that was consistently competing for the No. 1 spot. However, they are learning how to play a different style of defense in Tuscaloosa and it is showing up in some key areas.
Alabama leads the SEC in red zone defense and has been very stingy by only allowing 3.58 points per scoring opportunity. This group has been able to produce 11 takeaways and while ranking near the bottom in sack rate, they have produced plenty of QB hurries that tells us sacks should be coming. However, impactful splash plays are available. Opponents have scored four touchdowns from 40-plus yards out despite Bama not allowing very many of these chunk plays.
The heart of the defense is at Mike and Alabama was very happy to welcome back Dylan Moses (No. 32) to the lineup this season. The prototypical inside linebacker has posted 50 tackles and has been a major player in run fits with four non-sack tackles for loss. His running mate Christian Harris (No. 8) is no slouch either with a team leading 30 solo tackles and his speed has been a nice asset in pass rush with five pressures (one sack, four QB hurries) recorded.
In the trenches, Alabama has depth and will have about 7-8 guys who factor in at the point of attack. D.J. Dale (No. 94) is very active at nose and he is probably the best player in this group. At one of the defensive end spots, Phidarian Mathis (No. 48) has been very strong with 3.5 non-sack tackles for loss, three pass break-ups and three hurries. Christian Barmore (No. 58) is a player Draft Twitter is very high on and he has been active (two sacks, three pass break-ups) despite not starting. As a group, this unit has produced 8.5 non-sack tackles for loss and that is something UK has to avoid on Saturday.
In the secondary, there are dudes all over the place. It starts with corner Patrick Surtain Jr. (No. 2) who is in the running for CB1 in the upcoming NFL Draft and he is playing up to his five-star ranking this year. Daniel Wright (No. 3) has been excellent at free safety while true freshman Malachi Moore (No. 13) looks like an absolute dude with 28 tackles, three non-sack tackles for loss, two interceptions and six pass break-ups. This is one of the best secondaries in the college football.
In any 3-4 scheme, you need the EDGE players to cause some havoc. Alabama got very young this season with five-star true freshman Will Anderson Jr. (No. 31) starting at Jack while redshirt junior Christopher Allen (No. 4) is at Sam. These guys have just two combined sacks, but there is no denying the talent and expect Anderson to breakthrough at any moment. Hopefully it doesn't happen on Saturday.
When looking at the splits, it certainly does feel like the pass defense is the strength on the unit. The Tide are allowing just a 39.91% passing success rate and 17.98% of throws have ended in an interception or pass break-up. That's no surprise when you evaluate this secondary. However, running back rushes have been a little more successful (41.26% success rate) and should be an area UK tries to attack. The Tide have faired well when facing QB run this season and for UK to consistently move the ball it needs to be an important part of the attack. This will be one key matchup to watch.
Special Teams Breakdown
The kicking situation has always been something many have poked fun at during the Nick Saban era, but it doesn't appear to be an issue this season. Will Reichard is a perfect 8 of 8 with a couple of makes from 40-plus. However, the punting has been really bad with the Tide using two different punters who have posted under 36 yards per attempt. Opportunities could be there for UK to flip the field if they can force a punt when Bama is backed up.
The Tide will not kick it in the endzone as they want to try to gain some hidden yardage with kickoff coverage. Kentucky's return team must be ready. Losing Jaylen Waddle really hurt the third phase as he was the best return man in college football. Alabama is very pedestrian in both punt and kickoff returns.
Not having Max Duffy stings, but chances are that Alabama won't have to punt very much on Saturday.
Keys to Victory
- Kentucky just has very little chance to hang around in this matchup if they don't force turnovers. The Wildcats were unable to produce a takeaway against the worst turnover team in the SEC last week and that's a concern. They have to find a way to steal possessions to give themselves a shot.
- Similar to the matchup against Georgia, UK needs to ride Chris Rodriguez Jr. from start to finish. Alabama struggles to rush the passer, but their pass defense is excellent and they won't be afraid to press on the outside. UK's best method of attack will be running behind the Big Blue Wall and letting Rodriguez rumble. Do this and they have a chance to avoid short drives, eat clock and keep Alabama's offense off the field. They need to play complementary football.
- Kentucky's extended red zone defense has been very good all season, but it took a major step last week. Vanderbilt maximized all five scoring opportunities by scoring 35 points and that needs to change quick. The one semi-weakness Alabama has is finishing drives and UK's defense must find a way to get timely stops.
- Terry Wilson put a very good performance together against Vanderbilt and we need to see more of it on Saturday. The passing game figures to be a chore against this Bama defense, but No. 3's legs need to play a vital role in the upcoming 60 minutes. The Wildcats need their quarterback to make some plays.
- Somehow, Kentucky must find a way to come out the winner in the battle of big plays. Alabama can strike from any point on the field while Kentucky might be the best big play defense in the sport. They need for the latter to remain true. Meanwhile, when Alabama allows a big play it usually goes for six. UK needs to hit on one or two of these. Best case scenario, this offense likely needs at least 34 points to win the game. To get to that number, they'll have to score on some chunk plays.