Kentucky preview: Not enough claws for these Wildcats to threaten Tide

As the modern college football game has moved more from a defense-based sport to one of offense, invariably there will be teams left behind for awhile that continue to play tough defense yet lack the transformative offensive players necessary to challenge for championships.

Such is the 2020 Kentucky Wildcat team, a unit built around a tough, scrappy defense, but also without enough offense to dent the true superpowers like Alabama.

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The Crimson Tide has been idle for two weeks now, one a planned off-week and the other, an outright dodge from an LSU team that claimed Covid-19 impact under dubious circumstances. As such, Alabama might be a bit rusty against the Wildcats, but isn’t expected to have a lot of trouble in the end.

Alabama needs to play its game on offense, and the defense, which has made significant strides ever since the end of the Ole Miss game, needs to simply continue along its path. Do that, and a win awaits.

OFFENSE

Kentucky claims a starting set of four wide receivers, but for all that promised firepower, the Wildcats actually deliver on very little. The offensive style is spread-option, based around mobile players at the quarterback position, but the results have been disappointing to say the least. Kentucky ranks 38th in rushing offense, but 116th out of 126 teams in total offense and 117th in passing offense. Scoring offense is 96th at 23.3 points per game.

Alabama usually has that many on the board by the end of the first half, if not the end of the first quarter. The Crimson Tide’s multiple, pro-style attack ranks 6th in total offense, 3rd in scoring, 3rd in passing and 55th in rushing, with the latter figure being a bit misleading due to a slow start in 2020.

QUARTERBACKS
Alabama could very well see both Terry Wilson and Joey Gatewood, who are essentially the same guy. Both are true dual-threat players whose legwork is more impressive than the arm. Wilson has quietly put together a decent passing line (75-of-116, 64.7%, 712 yards, 6 TD, 1 INT, 131.6 QBR), but he isn’t utilized as a passer enough. Kentucky’s plans for him are to spread out the defense and then run the option. Wilson is the team’s second-leading rusher, with 68 carries for 334 yards and 4 touchdowns. That works out to a highly impressive 4.9 yards-per-carry average, given that Wilson has lost 49 yards to sacks, which count against rushing statistics at the college level.

Alabama counters with Mac Jones, who has thrown for 2,196 yards, 16 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions so far. If the game goes as planned, fans will see Bryce Young again in a cleanup situation. Wilson has potential, and his scrambling ability will give Alabama something to worry about, but Jones is far more dangerous as a starter and Young is probably a better backup than Gatewood. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Chris Rodriguez Jr. is probably the most underrated pure running back in the SEC. He has good size (5’11”, 225) and speed and can operate either between the tackles or outside them. He has put up 88 carries for 562 yards (6.4 avg.) and 6 touchdowns. He is absent in the passing game, though, catching no passes so far in 2020. Backup Asim Rose is more versatile, but has scored just 1 touchdown and doesn’t seem to have the ability to convert in close.

Red zone offense (63rd) has been an Achilles heel for Kentucky this season, largely because anyone but Rodriguez has been stymied near the goal line. Third-teamer Kavosiey Smoke, a Wetumpka native, has some value as a third-down back.

Alabama counters with Najee Harris as its bellcow, and he has been a revelation as both a runner and a receiver in 2020. Alabama will use Brian Robinson Jr. almost exclusively as Harris’ backup now, the unfortunate side effect of a car accident that claimed Trey Sanders’ 2020 season just when it seemed he was getting ready to challenge Robinson for the position of Harris’ primary backup.

With Sanders out, Alabama will fall back to true freshmen Jace McClellan and Roydell Williams as the third option, but they’ve only played on special teams and in blowouts so far. Josh McMillon continues to bring value as a situational fullback. Given the loss of Sanders, this category gets a lot closer than one might think, as Kentucky now holds the depth edge. But Harris’ ability to contribute in multiple roles gives Alabama the edge. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
All of Kentucky’s passing game seems to flow through one guy, Josh Ali. Ali has 343 yards receiving on the year – and no other Wildcat has even 100 yards on the season. Ali has caught only 1 touchdown pass, good for second on the team behind TE Keaton Upshaw’s 2. DeMarcus Harris and Allen Dailey Jr. are the other two regular starters; they have double-digit catch totals but average less than 10 yards per reception and don’t make plays downfield.

Michael Drennan and Akeem Hayes split the fourth receiver spot, when there is one. Upshaw and Justin Rigg, splitting the tight end position, are on the field more often than a fourth receiver, and both of them are able catchers of the ball.

Alabama, meanwhile, has six receivers in triple digits in terms of receiving yardage, led by DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III. With Jaylen Waddle out, Alabama has gone to Slade Bolden in the slot, but may be looking for more downfield production. If that happens, it will likely come from either true freshman Javon Baker or sophomore holdover Xavier Williams, neither of whom has caught a pass this year.

Tight end Miller Forristall has developed into one of the SEC’s best at the position, and Alabama has the ability to play as many as eight different players at tight end in various combinations. Kendall Randolph, Jahleel Billingsley and Major Tennison are the most likely supporting players this week, along with Cameron Latu. Even without Waddle out for Alabama, this is as big a mismatch as you’ll find this week. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
This has been a strength of the Kentucky team, at least in blocking for running backs. Kentucky ranks 15th in tackles for loss allowed, an impressive figure given how often the Wildcats run the ball. Sacks allowed comes in at 48th – not great, but manageable. Drake Jackson will start at center with Darian Kinnard and Landon Young at the tackles. Jackson and Young, at the very least, probably have pro futures. Luke Fortner is another workhorse at right guard. The left guard spot will be filled by either Kenneth Horsey or Austin Dotson. This is an experienced unit, flexible and in the top half of offensive lines that Alabama will see this year.

Alabama will start Landon Dickerson at center, with Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor Jr. at the guards and Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal at the tackles. Chris Owens has gotten more snaps lately in sort of a sixth-man role, playing mostly tackle and center. Alabama’s line is playing the best in the conference at the moment, but Kentucky is a worthy adversary and has the production to back it up. Advantage: Alabama

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