Crimson Tide return to the field for first game since Halloween to host Wildcats
After a lengthy layoff, the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide return to action at home on Saturday against the Kentucky Wildcats. Alabama (6-0) hasn't played since it hosted Mississippi State on Halloween, thanks to a combination of a bye week and last week's matchup with LSU getting tackled for the time being due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Tigers' program.
The Wildcats (3-4) snapped a two-game losing streak last Saturday with a 38-35 win at home over Vanderbilt. The close win victory was a new thing for UK, as its two wins came by 22 (Mississippi State) and 27 points (Tennessee). A fast start was key as the Wildcats jumped out to a 14-0 lead after the first quarter and were up 24-14 at halftime, holding off a late 14-point rally by the Commodores to secure the win. Kentucky really has its work cut out for it these next two games: Saturday's meeting with the No. 1 team in the country is followed by a visit to Gainesville to take on No. 6 Florida.
Alabama's last time out was much less stressful as the Tide cruised to a 41-0 win over the Mississippi State. The defense clamped down on the Bulldogs, giving up just 200 total yards — including a mere 37 yards on the ground — while the offense scored 27 first-half points en route to Alabama's fifth-straight 40-point game of the season.
Alabama has won 37 of 40 all-time meetings with Kentucky, including each of the last six, a stretch that dates back to 2003. The Wildcats last came away victorious in 1997, a 40-34 win in Lexington that marked their first over the Crimson Tide since way back in 1922. In the last six matchups, Kentucky has scored a total of 81 points while Alabama put up 82 in the last two meetings (2013, '16) alone.
Kentucky at No. 1 Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 4:00 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Alabama -30
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Wildcats quarterback Terry Wilson wasn't prolific in Saturday's win over Vanderbilt, but he was certainly effective. Wilson only threw 15 passes but completed 13 of them for 110 yards and two touchdowns. This was Wilson's first game this season with multiple touchdown passes, having thrown just four total in Kentucky's six previous contests.
Where the Wildcats truly dominated on Saturday was in the run game. Supplemented by Wilson's seven carries for 83 yards and a touchdown, Chris Rodriguez Jr. led the way with 13 rushes for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Rodriguez hadn't scored two touchdowns in a single game since Oct. 3 against Ole Miss, and his 149 yards marked a season high as the sophomore was named to Pro Football Focus' national team of the week. Meanwhile, 10 different Wildcats caught a pass from Wilson or Beau Allen — who completed three of five passes for 40 yards — and Keaton Upshaw led the way with 41 yards and a touchdown while DeMarcus Harris and Josh Ali were the only other pass catchers to tally multiple receptions.
Despite giving up fewer than 50 rushing yards to Mississippi State, Alabama hasn't been as strong defensively in 2020 as in years past. But the Crimson TIde's performance has still been among the upper echelon. The Tide rank among the top 40 in the nation in both scoring defense and rushing defense entering Saturday, allowing 22 points and 128.8 rushing yards per game this season. The latter of those will likely be put to the test this week, as Kentucky poses a significantly larger threat on the ground than through the air.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Mac Jones continues his chase for the Heisman Trophy with an SEC-leading 366.0 passing yards per game — which ranks third in the FBS — and 15.8 yards per completion. His 16 touchdown passes are third among SEC quarterbacks, a total aided substantially with his four-touchdown showing against Mississippi State when he completed 24 of 31 passes for 291 yards.
Najee Harris provides quite the complement to Jones, and against Mississippi State he once again — for the third time in four games — surpassed the century mark with 21 carries for 119 yards, adding 36 receiving yards on six catches. That 119-yard mark also happens to be Harris' season average, which leads the SEC and is a top-10 figure nationally, and he stands atop the conference — and second nationally — with 14 rushing touchdowns in 2020. The true star against the Bulldogs, though, was DeVonta Smith, who caught 11 passes for a season-high 203 yards and all four of Jones' touchdowns.
Kentucky will pose one of the stiffest tests that Jones and Smith will face in 2020, as the Wildcats allow an SEC-low 214.1 passing yards per game. Kentucky also sits second in the conference in both scoring defense (21.3 ppg) and takeaways (12), trailing Georgia (20.8) in the former and Arkansas (16) in the latter. Kelvin Joseph and Jamin Davis both rank among the top 10 in the SEC in interceptions this season, collecting three and two, respectively.
Even with the ranked competition that Alabama has already seen — and taken care of with relative ease — so far in 2020, Kentucky will provide a tough hurdle for Alabama's offense to solve. The Wildcats ought to be able to stay with the Crimson Tide early in the game, but Alabama simply has too much talent and should stay undefeated and atop the SEC.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Kentucky 23
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.