Both teams use variations of a 3-4 over/under defense, and due to personnel groupings, both will be almost exclusively in nickel alignments for this game. Kentucky ranks 23rd in scoring defense, but curiously fails to impress in any one given area, settling instead for sort of a “balanced upper-mediocrity” of effectiveness against both run and pass. Red zone defense, though, is 10th-best in the nation, showing the Wildcats know how to buckle down when their backs are against the goal line. Alabama has competitive numbers to Kentucky in all areas except raw pass defense, where the Crimson Tide ranks a dismal 93rd.
Kentucky just doesn’t get enough push up front, ranking 106th in tackles for loss and 108th in sacks. Josh Paschal has put together a solid season for himself as a tackle/end combo player, but nosetackle Quinton Bohanna and off-tackle Phil Hoskins simply have not done enough to warrant the reputations they had in the preseason. Of the backups, Marquan McCall has probably produced more than expected, but he’s really it, and depth behind the two outside tackle/ends just isn’t up to snuff.
Alabama will likely start either D.J. Dale or Phidarian Mathis in the middle, flanked by Justin Eboigbe and Christian Barmore outside. LaBryan Ray is going to be available to some degree this week, which would help against a team like Kentucky given Ray’s ability to play assignments against the option. Byron Young offers depth outside while true freshman Tim Smith continues to push for more snaps at nose. Alabama holds edges everywhere and is deeper besides. Advantage: Alabama
Kentucky’s best overall defender, MLB Jamin Davis, is listed as questionable for this game. His 73 tackles thus far are 20 more than the next-most productive Wildcat. If Davis is out, Marquez Bembry will start in his place but he is not nearly as dynamic a player.
The Jack linebacker duo of Jordan Wright and J.J. Weaver, however, are dynamic, combining for 9.5 sacks and generally wreaking havoc while playing mostly behind Kentucky’s best DL, Josh Paschal. Jamar Watson has been highly productive as a strongside linebacker despite being off the field a lot when the nickel package is in use.
Watson, Wright and Weaver give Kentucky the ability to go to a twin-Jacks alignment much like Alabama does when it has Will Anderson Jr. and Christopher Allen on the field at the same time. DeAndre Square will start on the weakside, and he can be effective when he wants to be, but also disappears for long stretches and isn’t particularly game-changing against the run.
For Alabama, steady improvement has been the name of the game. Dylan Moses is playing at a high level right now at middle linebacker, which has made Christian Harris’ ascension at weakside linebacker that much easier. The aforementioned Anderson and Allen have been effective as outside linebackers, but perhaps more so as edge contain players against the run than as the pass rushers they were hoped to be. Other than Ben Davis occasionally in the game as another pass-rush specialist, Alabama’s linebacker depth has been largely untapped, although it is there.
Josh McMillon and Jalen Moody provide depth up the middle while Drew Sanders is on the outside to support Davis. If Jamin Davis plays in this game, Kentucky probably holds a slim edge due to the better pass rush from its collection of outside backers. If Davis is out, though – or even noticeably slowed – Alabama will take it. Too close to call at this point. Advantage: Kentucky
Kentucky is 4th in the nation in intercepting passes, with 11 so far. Free safety Yusuf Corker leads this group, with Tyrell Ajian and Davonte Robinson the second and third safeties. The corner due of Kelvin Joseph, who leads the team with 3 interceptions, and Brandin Echols are first-rate. If there’s a weakness, it’s raw depth, with only Vito Tisdale and Quandre Mosley putting up any noticeable numbers.
Alabama seems to have stabilized a bit at safety, which was the problem spot early in the year. Malachi Moore leads that group from the Star position, while Daniel Wright can be effective if he plays under control and Jordan Battle continues to develop. The corner duo of Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain are both headed for big Draft paydays at some point. Brian Branch seems to have settled in at dime safety, while DeMarcco Hellams and Ronald Williams Jr. round out the primary group.
The key is really Wright and Battle; if they play within themselves, Alabama gets really close due to the Jobe-Surtain combination at corner. Play without discipline, though, and Kentucky runs away with it. Advantage: Kentucky
Kentucky has two punters averaging more than 46 yards per kick, which ought to tell you where this comparison is going. The Wildcats also have two capable placekickers, Matt Ruffolo and Chance Poore. Kentucky runs punts back well, and kickoff returns are solid, even if lacking in explosiveness. Alabama seems to have fixed the punting situation with Charlie Scott, and Will Reichard has been dependable as a placekicker.
Alabama lost a lot in the return game when Jaylen Waddle went down, and while Slade Bolden has been dependable as a punt returner, he hasn’t shown a burst yet. Alabama also has to retool yet again in the kick return department, as Trey Sanders had become an integral part of that unit. The addition of Scott has settled Alabama down a good bit and the Crimson Tide has avoiding big errors so far, but Kentucky has perhaps the best kicking situation in the league at the moment and the return game is solid enough to keep pace. Advantage: Kentucky
Alabama leads in five categories, Kentucky in three, but only in special teams do the Wildcats hold a clear edge. Both the linebacker and defensive back categories could easily go Alabama’s way. As for OL-DL cross-matchups, the matchup of Kentucky OL versus Alabama DL is a push, maybe a slight lean toward UK. But the other side of that matchup – Alabama OL versus Kentucky DL – is as big a mismatch as we’ve seen this year in Alabama’s games.
That’s going to make life very hard on Kentucky, because the Wildcats can’t afford to get into a trade-scores-for-scores kind of game with Alabama. The Wildcats simply won’t keep up. Kentucky needs to shorten the game and get a couple of critical stops, but Alabama should have enough success running the ball that Kentucky has to bring its secondary to the line. And when that happens, Jaylen Waddle or no Jaylen Waddle, Alabama has both the QB talent and the receiver talent to run by and through the back end of the Wildcat defense.
The key for Alabama defensively is not to let Terry Wilson beat the Tide with his legs. Alabama’s defensive backs have such a matchup advantage with the Kentucky receivers that Wilson will have to have a momentous day as a runner to make up the difference. If that doesn’t happen, this is a four-score game heading into the fourth quarter.
Alabama needs to shake off the rust early and play its game. If it does that, Kentucky just doesn’t have enough weapons to keep pace.
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