LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s conference win against South Carolina was a crucial confidence boost for the Wildcats, but that may be short lived with a road trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this weekend.
Kentucky (2-2, 1-1 SEC) faces top-ranked Alabama (4-0, 1-0) at 7 p.m. ET Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium. It’s the first matchup between the programs since 2013. The Wildcats have two victories in 39 tries against the Crimson Tide in a series that dates back to 1917.
Here are five keys for Kentucky on Saturday.
5. Don’t get caught up in the matchup
Nothing indicates that Kentucky has a shot to upset the Crimson Tide. Alabama is a superior team in all aspects of the game. That’s the case against most any team in the country, but especially in this matchup. The Wildcats have struggled in three of their four games this season and Saturday’s win against South Carolina was far from smooth.
That being said, the Wildcats will surely have more confidence making the trip riding a two-game win streak and a conference win against the Gamecocks. The coaches and players will expect nothing less than a win, as they should, but a loss to Alabama doesn’t negate the momentum UK garnered last Saturday.
4. Take chances on defense
Jalen Hurts is not an ordinary true freshman quarterback. He’s the first true freshman to start at the position for Alabama since 1984.
Hurts hasn’t been asked to air it out given Alabama’s ever-strong rushing attack, but he’s passed for five touchdowns against one interception. He’s been even better using his legs, averaging 62 yards on the ground per game with three rushing touchdowns.
Stopping Alabama’s ground game might be the tallest task in college football, but Kentucky has to zero-in on stacking the box, make Hurts throw it around and hope for turnovers. The Wildcats were one of the worst run defenses in the country through three games but held South Carolina to less than three yards per carry.
3. Turn Boom and Benny loose
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran kept the game plan simple for QB Stephen Johnson against South Carolina and more can be expected against Alabama. Johnson was careful protecting the ball outside of one interception and the ground game of Benny and Boom took all the pressure off the first-time starter.
Who knows what the running game will look like against Alabama’s monster front, but it’s worth seeing what Boom Williams and Benny Snell can do if the Kentucky line can open an occasional hole. Williams is averaging eight yards per carry and Snell’s strong style compliments Williams’ shiftiness.
Kentucky has to manage some success on the ground to ease Johnson into things and keep the defense off the field.
2. Narrow focus for improvement
The final line might not be pretty for Kentucky, but the Wildcats should key on one thing to try to improve. It’d be easy to come away from a game like this and think all is lost, so pick one aspect.
A better push from the defensive line? Limiting the big plays in the secondary? Not turning the ball over?
The Wildcats need to improve on each of the three. It’ll be about the small victories against Alabama that Kentucky can build from.
1. Come back in one piece
Kentucky is already playing its second-team quarterback, has a true freshman starting at left tackle because of an injury and has a defense that lacks depth in almost every position.
There doesn’t appear to be a lot to gain in this one, but the Wildcats could lose a lot if they come home with a few more injuries. Protecting Johnson and a talented backfield is a must, as is rotating the defense if the game gets away from the Wildcats.
Fluke injuries can arise from playing any opponent, not just Alabama, but the importance of this point lies in Kentucky’s next two matchups: home games against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State separated by an off week.
Both are winnable games but the Wildcats need to be at their best.