Kentucky has had a Lucy-and-Charlie-Brown relationship with expectations over recent years; many times, the Wildcats are picked to finally be on the verge of breaking through to the next level as a program, only to suffer a setback in the form of a slow start or unrealized expectations.
This was how it was somewhat in 2023, when the Wildcats were picked by many to either challenge Tennessee for the No. 2 spot in the SEC East, or even eclipse the Volunteers. But three losses in a row, to Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee, have sent the Wildcat program back to the drawing board.
Kentucky has been “Alabama lite” for a good part of the year: decent running game, a slow-to-develop passing game, and a pretty good defense. The big difference in the two teams really comes down to pass defense and the ability to make a few critical game-changing plays. Kentucky may not be ready for prime time yet, but Alabama can’t just sleepwalk through this game and expect to win it.
How the Crimson Tide manages its own expectations after an emotional win over LSU, as well as the early kickoff time and the injuries on defense, will tell the tale here.
Mark Stoops would probably prefer to have a little more flexibility in the offense this year, but Kentucky doesn’t have enough dynamic ability at the quarterback position. Kentucky has been a three-wide, one-back spread for the duration of Stoops’ tenure in Lexington, and the offense tends to go better when the quarterback is a legitimate running threat. Kentucky has been good at recording explosive plays this year, but hasn’t been quite as productive overall as in the past. Alabama’s offense exploded for 500-plus yards against LSU last week and is starting to come into focus as a balanced, physical attack. Like Kentucky, the overall output hasn’t been as high as in past years.
North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary is developing into a decent quarterback for the Wildcats, but his stat line shows some issues with both accuracy and a lack of dual-threat ability. Leary has carried the ball just 27 times through nine games for minus-22 total yards and 1 touchdown, which includes yardage lost to sacks. As a passer, he is completing just 57.4 percent of his passes on 147-of-256 throwing for 1,905 total yards. He has 18 touchdowns, however, but has also thrown 7 picks. The backup, Kaiya Sheron, has just 4 passes and 1 carry on the year; it’s been Leary’s show all the way. Alabama will start Jalen Milroe, fresh off a 4-rushing-TD performance against LSU, and a player that is no longer just OK in Alabama’s offense, but one who is developing into one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league. Milroe carries a QB rating of 171.1, compared to Leary’s 137.7, and the biggest difference between the two is Milroe’s ability to scramble out of trouble, as he has amassed 297 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns on the year. Ty Simpson will be the backup. Leary is not a bad option for Kentucky, but Milroe is several degrees more dynamic and may actually be a more accurate thrower all things considered. Advantage: Alabama
The key transfer for Kentucky over the offseason wasn’t getting Leary from North Carolina State; it was getting RB Ray Davis from Vanderbilt. Davis went from being just a “good running back at Vanderbilt” to being one of the most consistent performers in the conference at any school. For the year, Davis has rushed 148 times for 903 yards (6.1 avg.) and 9 touchdowns. He has good size and enough speed to cause issues for arm-tacklers in the front seven of defenses. JuTahn McClain and Demie Sumo-Karngbaye are effective as a backup-by-committee approach, but McClain may be a bit small to be considered a runner between the tackles if Kentucky needs that. Ramon Jefferson adds further depth but probably won’t play in this game, but McClain is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury and would be the third Kentucky running back knocked out of action this year if that holds. Davis and Sumo-Karngbaye are also effective as receivers. Alabama will start Jase McClellan, backed up by Roydell Williams and Jamarion Miller, with Justice Haynes providing depth. Miller’s role increased against LSU and not only gave Alabama a change of pace there, but also kept some of the mileage off Williams as the primary backup to McClellan, and the results were effective for the group entire. Davis has been the best performer from either team, but Alabama has better depth and is in better health at the moment, which might make the biggest difference. Advantage: Alabama
Only three players with wide receiver listed at their positions have catches this year for Kentucky, and those are the starters, Barion Brown, Dane Key and Tayvion Robinson. Key has good size at 6’3” and Brown, a player Alabama recruited heavily, has good speed but is slight of build. Robinson leads the team with 462 yards receiving, while Brown is the leading pass-catcher with 32 receptions, but the top touchdown scorer among receivers is actually RB Ray Davis, with 5. The backups are a pair of true freshmen, Anthony Brown-Stephens and Brandon White, but neither has a catch yet, nor does sophomore Dekel Crowdus. All three are on the small side for receivers. The tight end combo of Jordan Dingle, Brenden Bates and Josh Kattus has been very productive, combining for 20 catches for 314 yards and 2 touchdowns. Like Alabama, Kentucky will frequently use an Ace package look with Dingle as a fullback or H-back. Alabama has developed a competent receiver rotation built around wideouts Isaiah Bond and Jermaine Brooks and tight ends C.J. Dippre and Amari Niblack, with four those players having modestly better production than their Kentucky counterparts. Where Alabama really pulls away here is depth. Kendrick Law brought some excitement to the offense against LSU and combines with Kobe Prentice and Malik Benson to offer Bama options at the third receiver. Ja’Corey Brooks may miss this game, but even if he’s out, Alabama has been able to reach down the depth chart and find other players like Jalen Hale. Robbie Ouzts and Danny Lewis Jr. offer further depth at tight end. Advantage: Alabama
Kentucky’s line has been solid in 2023, ranking 30th in sacks allowed and 36th in tackles for loss allowed. There is good senior leadership at three positions, including both tackles (Marques Cox, Jeremy Flax) and center (Eli Cox). The guards will be Dylan Ray and Jager Burton, both sophomores. Kenneth Horsey and Courtland Ford have also started games this year.What Kentucky doesn’t have is a lot of depth. Ray is also listed as the primary backup to a couple of the other positions, meaning any injuries would likely cause some reshuffling of personnel. In fact, Kentucky will only have 8 or 9 linemen in uniform most likely for this game, including former Alabama transfer Tanner Bowles. Alabama is coming off a strong performance against LSU, and while the Crimson Tide still ranks poorly in sacks allowed (124th), it has made improvement in the running game, which started about the time Jaeden Roberts claimed the right guard position. Left tackle Kadyn Proctor has also made a big jump forward lately, which is probably the last missing puzzle piece to this offense. J.C. Latham had a strong game against LSU and will start at right tackle, while Tyler Booker starts at left guard and Seth McLaughlin at center. Kentucky has far more impressive metrics but Alabama is improving on a steep curve. If Proctor gives another performance this week like his last, we’ll start to ignore the metrics going forward. Advantage: Kentucky
Both teams run a 3-4 over/under scheme and both have had similar success up front. Kentucky actually ranks higher than Alabama in rushing defense (21st vs. 30th) but the Crimson Tide more than makes up for it in secondary play. Kentucky ranks 42nd in total defense, while Alabama is 25th.
Kentucky ranks 31st in sacks and 33rd in tackles for loss, which are comparable to Alabama’s rankings of 11th and 30th in those same categories. Kentucky is a bit more blue-collar up front and doesn’t have quite as much depth; the most dynamic player has been DT Deone Walker, who ranks 7th on the team with 30 total tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He also leads the team with 5 QB hurries. After that, NT Josaih Hayes, DE Octavious Oxendine and reserve DE Tre’vonn Rybka are all sort of clustered together on the stat sheet. Beyond Walker’s contributions, however, there hasn’t been a lot of activity behind the line – especially not in terms of sacks – from this group, as most of the sack production comes from the linebacker group. Kahlil Saunders and Keeshawn Silver provide depth along with Darrion Henry-Young. Alabama will start Tim Keenan at nose with Justin Eboigbe, Tim Smith, Jah-Marien Latham and Jaheim Oatis rotating outside. Damon Payne Jr. will provide depth inside, and James Smith is also available. Alabama has done a good job of getting elite performances from a different player in this group each week, and last week was Eboigbe’s turn. Smith and Oatis have both become much more consistent, making this group a difference-maker at this point in the season rather than something Alabama had to manage around at the start of the year. Alabama will have to account for the presence of Walker, and Kentucky’s group is a quality unit. Alabama just has better ability further down the depth chart. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams get a lot out of their linebacker groups, and Alabama is also having to manage the likely absence of starting MLB Deontae Lawson. Lawson injured an ankle against LSU and as such, the Crimson Tide will likely start Jihaad Campbell next to Trezmen Marshall inside. If Lawson can’t go, Kendrick Blackshire becomes the rotational linebacker at both spots, a position he held earlier in the year before Campbell passed by him. Shawn Murphy, Ian Jackson and Justin Jefferson will be the reserves. On the outside, Dallas Turner changed the course of the LSU game with his hit on QB Jayden Daniels, which is exactly why the Tiger coaches and fans made so much noise about the nature of the hit this week. Regardless, the SEC office ruled it was not targeting, so Turner will play this full game this week opposite Chris Braswell, while Quandarrius Robinson backs up both outside spots. For Kentucky, J.J. Weaver is the man to watch coming off the edge; he plays the Jack spot for the Wildcats. Kentucky tends to come up with the other edge solution using defensive ends such as Keaton Wade (although Wade is officially listed as a LB despite his DE size); second-team OLB Noah Matthews barely has any production on record this year. Inside, D’Eryk Jackson and Trevin Wallace will start at middle and weakside linebacker, respectively, and both are good in coverage as well as filling holes. Wallace is tied for the team lead in sacks with 4.5. Daveren Rayner and Martez Thrower provide depth, and Rayner at least will see plenty of action. If Lawson were available for this game, it wouldn’t be much of a contest. With him out, however, Kentucky probably has the edge inside, but the Turner-Braswell combination outside is a bit too much to overcome. This one is very close. Advantage: Alabama
There would be a chasm between these two teams if not for the probable loss of S Jaylen Key for Alabama this week to a quadriceps injury. It took Alabama about a quarter against LSU to figure out that Kristian Story wasn’t going to be the answer as Key’s replacement, although due to Kentucky’s offensive style, Story would probably be a much better fit this week. As it stands, expect Trey Amos and Ga’Quincy McKinstry to start at the corners, Malachi Moore and Caleb Downs to start at the high safeties and Terrion Arnold to move from corner down to the Star position. Story will still be the first DB off the bench, most likely, with Jake Pope next up. If Alabama needs a third corner, however, the situation gets less settled. Antonio Kite will probably be the first to get the call, with Dezz Ricks the next man up. Kentucky has two players it can count on, and both are cornerbacks: Andru Phillips, who is the Wildcats’ version of McKinstry – i.e., is the defensive back you don’t want to throw to.The other cornerback is sophomore Maxwell Hairston, who has recorded a whopping 5 interceptions already this year. The problem is, the rest of the unit is suspect. Star safety Alex Afari Jr. is decent, but the other two members of the safety trio will be a true freshman (Ty Bryant) and Texas State transfer Zion Childress. In general, Wildcat DBs don’t make a tremendous number of plays behind the line of scrimmage against the running game. Provided Alabama doesn’t have any other injury issues in this game, even with Jaylen Key it’s still a big edge to Bama. Advantage: Alabama
Will Reichard went 0-for-2 on field goals against LSU, missing a pair of intermediate-distance kicks. We’re going to chalk that up as an anomaly and not hold it against him too much going into this week. James Burnip continues to excel as a punter, and Kendrick Law is starting to feel more comfortable as the kickoff returner. Alabama will have to replace the second return man this week if Ja’Corey Brooks is out. Ga’Quincy McKinstry was able to safely field a pair of LSU punts last week, and any small bit of progress there is welcomed given he appeared to have a case of the yips against Tennessee. For Kentucky, Alex Raynor is a decent placekicker, but he hasn’t gotten many opportunities this year. He’s missed one PAT and one long field goal but everything else has been a make. Kentucky has struggled on coverage teams and ranks 100th in net punting mostly because punter Wilson Berry has struggled with his punt distances; he’s averaging just 39.5 yards gross, almost unheard of in this day and age. The Wildcats have solid return teams, however, so Alabama will need to be on its toes when kicking the ball away. Presuming Reichard gets back on track, Bama has a solid edge here. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, Kentucky in one, but a few of the others are close enough to look at twice (running back, wide receiver, DL, linebacker). In the OL-DL cross matchups, this is about as close to a double push as you’ll ever see. Forced to make a call, we would say both teams’ defensive lines had slim edges over the offensive lines they will face off against.
And that fits, because the Wildcats are a team built very similarly to Alabama this year – just without quite the talent level of Alabama’s roster. The one position on the field that is substantially different is the quarterback position, where Alabama can pressure the Kentucky defense in ways Kentucky cannot pressure Alabama’s defense. If Jalen Milroe continues to improve with each game, it’s hard to imagine how the Kentucky offense can keep pace in this game.
The wild card for Alabama is the injury situation. Both teams are missing players by this point in the season, but Alabama has to replace the heart of its defense in Deontae Lawson, along with a difference-maker at safety in Jaylen Key. LB Trezmen Marshall probably isn’t 100 percent yet himself, and the situation at safety is thread-thin unless Kristian Story’s LSU performance was an outlier, or Jake Pope steps up out of nowhere.
Alabama also has to combat an 11 a.m. start time on the road in the SEC. Even home kickoffs aren’t great at that hour, much less when logistical challenges are added to the mix. But if this is truly a team on a mission, as has been suggested in the wake of big wins over Tennessee and LSU, then Bama should find a way to put Kentucky away by the start of the fourth quarter.
Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN