WHEN: Saturday, October 19, 2013; TBA
WHERE: Commonwealth Stadium (Lexington, KY)
LAST SEASON: 2-10 (0-8 South Eastern Conference, 7th in SEC East)
CURRENT PRESEASON RANKING: consensus – unranked
CURRENT BETTING LINE: Alabama by 30
RADIO: Crimson Tide Sports Network, affiliates listed here: http://www.rolltide.com/multimedia/radio-tv.html
SERIES HISTORY: Alabama leads 35-2-1 (Last meeting: Alabama defeated Kentucky 38-20 in 2009 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, KY)
OFFENSE: Kentucky returns six starters from a unit that 113th (out of 120) in the nation in total offense. Sophomore QB Maxwell Smith threw for 975 yards eight TDs (with 4 INTs) in just four starts before he was forced to miss the rest of the year due to an ankle injury. Both of his backups Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towels also return and were able to gain some experience last year in case Stewart isn’t able to return to his early 2012 form.
Smith can be a dangerous and prolific passer given time to throw, but is working with only three starters from a unit that allowed 26 sacks and averaged 138 yards a game rushing in 2012. He does have speedy wide receiver Demarco Robinson (28 catches for 297 yards) and running back Raymond Sanders (669 yards and five TDs rushing) as weapons, but past that the talent isn’t very deep.
New offensive coordinator Neal Brown ran very prolific offenses at both Troy and Texas Tech in his career, and it’s expected that his philosophy of a wide open spread offense should suit Smith extremely well, but more receivers will have to step up as targets.
Conclusion: Smith will try to spread out the Tide defense, but a lack of talent and depth will likely keep Kentucky from gaining much traction on the offensive side. The key for Alabama’s defense will three-and-outs. If Alabama is forcing that up-tempo offense off the field, that means TJ Yeldon and the rest of the Tide backs get to beat up on the Kentucky defense more, and the best defense against an up-tempo offense is to keep it off the field.
DEFENSE: Last year Kentucky was 59th in total defense last year, allowing just show of 400 total yards a game and allowed 31 points a game. They return several starters from that unit with the best of the bunch being middle linebacker Avery Williamson who racked up 135 tackles last season. Outside linebacker Miles Simpson added 70 tackles.
Kentucky does boast some girth up the middle with defensive tackles Donte Rump (323 lbs.) and Mister Cobble (340 lbs.) which should help in the running game, but not much depth behind them. JUCO transfer Za’Darius Smith was a top JUCO prospect at defensive end, and could add some much needed help as a pass rusher immediately.
Conclusion: With Alabama’s rotation of running backs and massive offensive line, it will likely be a bruising day for the Kentucky defense. They will likely stack the box against Alabama and dare AJ McCarron to throw, which could be even worse for them with only two returning in the secondary from a unit that allowed opponents to complete nearly 70 percent of its passes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Landon Foster averaged 43 yards per punt in 2012 with a long of 58 yards. Joe Mansour will likely be the new kicker for Kentucky, but despite being a senior, he has never kicked a field goal or extra point in a game in his career. He has handled the kickoffs for Kentucky since he was a freshman, however.
Demarco Robinson averaged 6.5 yards per punt return last year and DeMarcus Stewart led the team averaging 20 yards per kickoff return. Both return in 2013.
Conclusion: Foster is a solid punter and could help put Alabama’s offense in tough yardage situations at times, but with an inexperienced place kicker points may be even harder to come by for Kentucky.
COACHING: Mark Stoops takes over for Joker Phillips in his very first head coaching position. Stoops, brother of Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, is coming off of a very successful stint as Florida State’s defensive coordinator from 2010-2012. Stoops could bring that hard-nosed attitude Kentucky has been looking for, but it’s going to be a rough start for his Wildcat team and it’s going to take time to build the high-powered, up-tempo offense OC Neal Brown wants, as well as adding depth for new defensive coordinator DJ Eliot.
Conclusion: Stoops could be Kentucky’s answer in the long term, but in the short term he’s coming up against Alabama’s Nick Saban in what will very likely be a rough day at the office for Stoops and company.