A month ago, there were questions as to what Jalen Milroe could do to beat the better teams on Alabama’s schedule. Today, the question is: what can’t he do?
Following a week in which Milroe set a school record with four touchdown runs – a record at a former wishbone school that used to grow running quarterbacks like they were lantana bushes: big and numerous – he somehow managed to better himself over the course of less than 160 hours. Milroe threw for three scores and ran for three as Alabama beat Kentucky 49-21 and clinched the SEC West.
Alabama barely felt the effects of Milroe’s one interception, but Kentucky QB Devin Leary had no such cushion. Leary proved to be a poor answer to Milroe’s explosiveness. Leary lived up to his reputation as a reliable game manager, but that wasn’t nearly enough today.
Alabama already knew it was going to be without its best inside linebacker in Deontae Lawson and at worst its second-best high safety in Jaylen Key. Late in the week, Alabama threw its best receiver, Jermaine Burton, onto the pile as well. Burton caught some measure of germ that caused him to be sick enough not to get to make the trip at all, which forced Alabama to look for increased contributions from Kobe Prentice, Malik Benson and Kendrick Law, along with TE Amari Niblack. Prentice, especially, benefited from the increased workload, especially in the first half.
Milroe’s performances have been improving steadily, but the last three weeks have seen stair-step jumps forward and upward as the sophomore has gotten more comfortable at the controls. Alabama can now design more complex plays for Milroe without worrying so much about the execution, because Milroe is executing everything in sight …
… especially opponents.
This would have been the perfect spot on the schedule for Alabama to deliver a less-than-par performance, but it didn’t. Kentucky wasn’t likely to upset Alabama under any circumstance, but Bama needed a convincing win here for the benefit of pollsters, and the Crimson Tide came through.
The big prize at the end of this one, though, was the SEC West title. In what will probably be the last year of divisional football in the SEC, Alabama can say it was both the first SEC West champion and likely its last. Alabama will face off against Georgia in Atlanta with possibly a College Football Playoff berth on the line.
Could Alabama have even thought about this a month ago? Probably not. But that’s where Jalen Milroe comes in. The quarterback who was once maligned as a liability to this offense has grown into perhaps its biggest strength. And of all the things this Saturday that proved to be overwhelming, dealing with the reality of Milroe’s sharp improvement may be the most overwhelming thing of all.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Kentucky:
- Kentucky OL couldn’t win the point of attack. In our pregame preview, the one area in which the Wildcats appeared to hold an edge on paper was along the offensive line. But it certainly didn’t work out that way. Statistically, Alabama’s rankings are hamstrung by some patently awful results received primarily in the first 2-3 weeks. As the season has matured, however, Alabama’s offensive line has continued to get better, even if the raw numbers don’t immediately show it. The same could be said of the Bama defensive line, which started slowly before melding into a cohesive unit with an aggressive streak. It’s that defensive line that Kentucky’s offensive line ran full into the teeth of this Saturday, and the Wildcats couldn’t manage the problem. Alabama held Kentucky to only 95 yards rushing, 72 of those yards coming on a single carry by Ramon Jefferson late in the game with the outcome well in hand. Devin Leary was sacked 3 times and Bama recorded QB hurries on 7 other snaps.
- Bama CBs continued to deliver a stellar performance. The cornerback trio of Ga’Quincy McKinstry, Terrion Arnold and Trey Amos continues to act as a de facto no-fly zone. Kentucky’s completions mostly came against the safeties and extra DB personnel, and Arnold’s interception was textbook. Few people would have expected this level of play from this particular trio prior to the season, but it’s been a while since Alabama had this much depth and this many options from its outside secondary personnel.
- Offensive skill talent is working together in concert, and can fill in for missing personnel as needed. Competent depth is highly important down the stretch when there are injuries, but it isn’t just about watching Kobe Prentice elevate his game in the absence of Jermaine It’s also the continued development of TEs C.J. Dippre and Amari Niblack, the extra burst that Jamarion Miller brings to the running back group, and yes, the continued blossoming of Jalen Milroe at quarterback. Given where the WR group was in the preseason and where the RB group was thought to be after the first couple of games, this is the kind of improvement Alabama will take, no questions asked. A total of 8 rushers carried the ball and 11 receivers caught it against Kentucky.
- What Kentucky’s OL couldn’t do, Alabama’s OL most certainly did. Jalen Milroe finished the game without suffering a sack, which might be the first time that’s happened since South Florida – also known as the game he spent on the bench. Alabama also lost just 14 yards to tackles for loss, half of what Kentucky lost to Alabama. There won’t be enough time to really improve upon the team’s OL stats with just a handful of games left on the schedule, but the naked-eye improvement is clear. Alabama was able to move the ball with balance, and kept a good Kentucky defense from having any real impact on the game.
- Don’t discount the amount of focus it took to stay on course in this one. Alabama was coming off wins over two of its three biggest rivals, and could easily have chosen to stay in bed rather than getting up and getting off to a quick start. That’s exactly what Alabama did, however, scoring the first 21 points of the game, and mostly maintaining that lead throughout. It’s an even more impressive feat given that the Crimson Tide doesn’t really control its own destiny to or through the College Football Playoff. This is a team that has fully bought in to what its coaches are selling, and while no one knows yet how everything will play out, it’s highly unlikely that this team will allow itself to become sidetracked before the goal is in sight. There’s just one more rivalry performance to check off – and it’s the biggest of them all, in two weeks at Auburn.
Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN