By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 28, 2016
This was supposed to be the year that Mark Stoops’ Kentucky Wildcats turned the corner.
And perhaps they did – only to get hit by a truck coming around that corner.
Kentucky has won its last two games, sure … late, against woeful New Mexico State, and 17-10 over a South Carolina team that may be having second thoughts about hiring Will Muschamp. Prior to that, Kentucky managed to not only get blown out by Florida, but also lose to Southern Miss in its home opener.
Give credit to Stoops for correctly identifying Kentucky’s major problem upon his arrival – talent – but he has either not been able to remedy the problem quickly enough, or his staff is not developing the players it does get. Either explanation is bad news for the Wildcats this week, as they must try to fend off a dynamic Alabama team on the Crimson Tide’s homecoming.
Kentucky at least had the good sense to back off the full-time air-raid offense Stoops brought to Lexington with him. Kentucky has relied far more on its stable of running backs (47th) than on the arm of its quarterbacks (92nd) in 2016. Part of that imbalance is due to an injury at the quarterback position that thrust a dual-threat backup into the mix as the starter. Kentucky will likely play more of a spread look against Alabama, as leveraging the speed at the quarterback position may be the only hope the Wildcats have. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 18th in rushing offense and 66th in passing offense and has proven to be one of the most consistently effective, efficient offenses in the sport.
Both teams are now missing their season starters. Drew Barker started the first three games of the year for Kentucky, but suffered a back injury and will not play in this game. Stephen Johnson, a JUCO transfer and dual-threat player, has seen more action than Barker, anyway, and with the way Barker was struggling in the early going, his injury isn’t exactly going to hamstring Kentucky’s offense. Johnson has completed nearly 66% of his passes, thrown just 1 interception and is the third-leading rusher on a team that boasts a deep running back group. The real question is who will back him up. True freshman Gunnar Hoak has yet to get any snaps, but he’s probably the guy if Johnson goes down. Alabama starts Jalen Hurts, who is well on his way to a whole slew of year-end honors, but Alabama will have to pick a new backup with news breaking Wednesday that Blake Barnett had decided to leave the team. Nick Saban allowed for the possibility of Barnett’s return, but even if he comes back this week, he would almost certainly sit behind Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell. Bateman, the new backup to Hurts, has experience in the role and is certainly a stronger option than is Kentucky’s Hoak. Stephen Johnson seems to have sparked the Kentucky offense somewhat and may have given Barker the Wally Pipp treatment, but Hurts is the best player on either team and Bateman gives Alabama a depth advantage. Advantage: Alabama
Just when it looked like Alabama had this unit figured out, Damien Harris twisted an ankle against Kent State and will likely miss this game. With Harris gone, either Bo Scarbrough or Joshua Jacobs, a true freshman, figures to get the start. Whoever starts will rotate heavily with the other, while B.J. Emmons will also get action. Jacobs was superlative against Kent State after Harris went down, and Emmons has shown flashes of big-time ability. Scarbrough, though, suffered a thigh injury against the Golden Flashes and has been slow to get going in 2016, carrying 26 times for only 87 yards (3.3 avg.) so far. Walk-on Derrick Gore will probably get to play again in this game. Neither team uses a fullback. The running backs are the strength of the Kentucky offense, headed by Stanley Williams (58 carries, 464 yards, 8.0 avg., 2 TD), a bona fide pro prospect. Jojo Kemp and true freshman Benjamin Snell Jr. provide quality depth. Alabama will be challenged by Williams; although not a large back at 5’9”, 196”, punches above his weight and doesn’t back down. With a healthy Harris, Alabama would take this category, but Williams gives Kentucky a homerun threat and the Wildcats have the benefit of experience. Advantage: Kentucky
Again, Alabama is dealing with injury troubles. ArDarius Stewart will likely miss this game with a knee injury, while Robert Foster is also doubtful with knee issues. That leaves Calvin Ridley to carry the load along with Cameron Sims and Gehrig Dieter, but this trio performed just fine against Kent State. Depth falls to Derek Kief, Trayvon Diggs and Raheem Falkins, with Xavian Marks and T.J. Simmons also in the mix. Tight end O.J. Howard continues to give Alabama a weapon at tight end, with Hale Hentges, Brandon Greene and Miller Forristall also seeing time there. Kentucky’s production at the wide receiver spot has been one of the biggest head-scratchers for this team in 2016: Per-catch averages are through the roof – top receiver Jeff Badet is averaging 30.6 yards per reception – but catches have been few and far between (Badet has just 8) and Kentucky hasn’t seen production from down the depth chart. Garrett Johnson, Ryan Timmons and Tavin Richardson fill out the first level, while Dorian Baker and Kayaune Ross are also available. Kentucky has gotten quality contributions from starting tight end C.J. Conrad, and backup Greg Hart isn’t bad. The Wildcats ought to be concerned over the lack of consistency, which is where Alabama takes this category, but there is quality here. Advantage: Alabama
Kentucky is last in the SEC is sacks allowed and ranks 112th nationally in the category. Aside from center Jon Toth, there isn’t a lot of star power in this group. Guards Nick Haynes and Ramsey Meyers are adequate in run blocking but have struggled with the nuances of pass protection; tackles Cole Mosier and Kyle Meadows have largely been a disappointment. There’s not a ton of depth here, either, as Jervontius Stallings pretty much backs up all three interior positions, with no one older than a sophomore available off the bench. Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, flanked by guards Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor and tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams. Now that the guard rotation has been straightened out, Alabama’s offensive line looks pretty scary once again. Alabama has a clear edge in depth, with almost two complete lines of backups behind the starters. Look for Lester Cotton to get early work at right guard. This one isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama
Of the five major defensive statistical categories, Kentucky’s best ranking is 94th in pass efficiency defense. Given that defense is supposed to be Stoops’ specialty, this isn’t good news. Kentucky and Alabama both run 3-4 over/under schemes, but schematic function is the only similarity. Kentucky ranks 96th in pass defense, 98th in rush defense, and 109th in both total defense and scoring defense. The Wildcats are 123rd in turnover margin, largely due to not yet forcing a fumble. Alabama ranks 5th in rushing defense, 15th in total defense, 16th in scoring defense, 32nd in pass efficiency defense and 55th in raw pass defense, the last being a statistical aberration courtesy of Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly. Mismatches abound.
Kentucky’s meager hopes for good defensive line play went out the window early when Regie Meant left the team. Matt Elam has been forced into a full-time starting role at nosetackle, but conditioning has kept him from making an impact. He has 4 tackles on the year, only 1 of them unassisted, and no other statistical contribution. Backup Naquez Pringle has been much more productive (12 tackles, a half-sack and 1.5 tackles for loss) and will need to play more in this game for Kentucky to have any hope of slowing Alabama down. Courtney Miggins and Adrian Middleton will start at the ends, although Middleton is in a fight for his job with Alvonte Bell. Tymere Dubose offers depth behind Miggins. There’s just not a lot of playmaking ability here, and even with Meant still in the picture, Kentucky was picked to have one of the worst DLs in the conference in the preseason. Alabama will start Da’Ron Payne at nose with Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen at the ends. Dakota Ball has become part of the primary rotation along with Da’Shawn Hand, and Joshua Frazier got an increased workload last week. Raekwon Davis, Jamar King and O.J. Smith are also available, as is Johnny Dwight for the first time this year. Neither team is particularly deep, but Alabama’s starting trio is light years beyond Kentucky’s. Advantage: Alabama
Kentucky’s outside linebacker duo of Jack linebacker Denzil Ware and strongside backer Josh Allen have combined for 6 sacks and have done a reasonable job of providing a spark to the defense. They’re just not getting a lot of help from inside linebackers Courtney Love, a Nebraska transfer, or Jordan Jones. Jones is the team’s leading tackler, but isn’t as active behind the line or as effective filling holes as he needs to be. Plus, he and Love have combined for only a single sack. Jordan Bonner and De’Niro Laster provide depth outside, while Kash Daniel and Eli Brown back up the inside. Bonner has yet to record a tackle. Again, Alabama has playmakers where Kentucky has placeholders. Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton will start inside for Alabama, while Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams get the call outside. Christian Miller, Jamey Mosley, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Hall provide depth on the edge, while Keith Holcombe, Rashaan Evans and Mack Wilson bolster the interior. It’s safe to say the biggest disappointment for Kentucky has been that Love has been slow to catch up to the speed of SEC teams. Alabama has had no troubles at all with its group. Advantage: Alabama
Derek Baity and Chris Westry will probably grow into a competent cornerback duo down the line, but right now both players need more consistency. Baity is probably already the best defensive back on the Wildcat team, or at least the most potentially dynamic. Blake McClain and Mike Edwards will start at the safety spots, with Marcus McWilson the primary backup. J.D. Harmon offers experienced depth at corner. Kendall Randolph helps McWilson bolster the safety and nickel groups. Alabama will start Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett at corner, with Minkah Fitzpatrick at nickel. Ronnie Harrison and Eddie Jackson get the safety assignments, with Hootie Jones as the dime safety. Deionte Thompson, Levi Wallace, Shyheim Carter and Aaron Robinson provide depth along with Trayvon Diggs, Jared Mayden and, for the first time in 2016, Tony Brown. The sheer numbers Alabama can throw at this problem dwarfs what Kentucky is able to muster; it doesn’t help Kentucky’s cause that outside of Baity, there really is no one there for Alabama to even remotely fear. Strong edge to Alabama here. Advantage: Alabama
Somehow, it’s Game 5 and Kentucky placekicker Austin MacGinnis has attempted just two field goals. MacGinnis is 1-for-2, with both attempts coming in the 30-39 range. He’s also missed a PAT. Punter Grant McKinniss is averaging just short of 41 yards per kick; he’s had just three stopped inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and has had a kick blocked. The return game has given Kentucky much better results. The Wildcats rank 7th in punt returns and 38th in kickoff returns. Alabama’s Adam Griffith has hit three-fourths of his kick attempts this year, while punter J.K. Scott has been superlative. Alabama’s return rankings (5th/40th) mirror Kentucky’s. The Wildcats just haven’t quite measured up to Alabama in the kicking department, which is what separates the two teams here. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, Kentucky in one, and were it not for Damien Harris’ expected absence, Alabama would have yet another straight-eight lead. Alabama strongly leads both OL-DL matchups.
This game really shouldn’t be competitive. But Kentucky is an SEC opponent, and the Wildcats possess enough speed and skill position talent to make things uncomfortable if Alabama just doesn’t care about showing up. If Alabama nails the preparation, however, this game is going to be yet another exercise in clearing the bench.
Look for Kentucky to roll up a bunch of cheap yardage, but Alabama’s red zone defense, offensive firepower and superior efficiency to allow the Crimson Tide to steadily build a lead and eventually pull away.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
Comment now using your Facebook login!
Powered by Facebook Comments