Kentucky v. Alabama pregame outlook

Will Micah Johnson play and be effective?

The Kentucky Wildcats (4-0, 0-0) will face the # 2 Alabama Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) at 2:30 p.m. in Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Alabama Saturday. The game will be nationally broadcast on CBS. What can we expect to see at kickoff? There are more questions than there are answers.

The first thing the cats will see is the color red. Or crimson. About 92,000 of them dressed in that color, if past performance is a reliable indicator of future performance, and it is. The fan support will be there for the Crimson Tide, and it will be a solid test for young redshirt quarterback Michael Hartline and his bevy of still wet behind the ear receivers.

One of the biggest keys to the game for Kentucky will be whether the receiving corps—except for senior Dicky Lyons, Jr., almost exclusively freshmen—will continue to play under the expectations of Coach Rich Brooks and the Kentucky fan faithful. Dropped passes, missed routes, and more have been the fate so far this season. And Alabama is no place to ease into expectations.

Three key players were injured in Kentucky's game against Middle Tennessee State three weeks ago—wide receiver/quarterback Randall Cobb, linebacker Micah Johnson, and defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin. All three players worked out this week for the first time since that game, and all three players will make the trip to Tuscaloosa. Will they play in the game? Will they be effective?

Cobb has been an exciting playmaker for Kentucky already in his young career. Johnson was having his best game ever as a Wildcat before being injured against Middle Tennessee State, with nine tackles before halftime, and is the team's leading tackler. And Lumpkin, as the top reserve at his position, has been integral to the Wildcat defense before his injury. Expect to see Johnson early in the game, and Cobb and Lumpkin both as the game progresses—provided the game is not out of hand early.

The matchup in the middle will be a big key to Kentucky's chances at success in the game. Alabama's Terrence Cody is a behemoth at nose tackle, 6'5, 380 pounds--and that's before breakfast. Kentucky's offensive line has not performed as well as Coach Brooks would like them to be, and it all starts from the center position, with Jorge Gonzalez manning the slot. Gonzalez has seen nobody like "Mount Cody" this season. This is one of those battles that does not need to be "won" by Kentucky, but the damage needs to be neutralized for the Cats to have a chance to win.

Alabama plays a very physical game, and the Tide has jumped out to a lead in every game this season. Another key to the game for the Wildcats will be to neutralize this advantage—take the initial hit, and get off to a good start. Can Alabama play the same way from behind as they have from ahead? We don't know, since they haven't had to do it all season.

Kentucky cannot afford to have Alabama jump ahead with a big lead, as the team has not shown a lot of come-from-behind ability.

There are probably a hundred other items that could be mentioned as keys to the game for Kentucky, but besides the ones already mentioned, we'll hit five more:

1) Turnovers. The Alabama team is too good to allow to win the turnover battle and expect to compete. Georgia turned the ball over to Alabama early, and saw themselves trailing 31-0 by halftime.

2) Special teams. Field position is always important in the game. Can Kentucky maximize its advantage in the punting game, punting to Alabama's dangerous Javier Arenas with the # 1 punter in the SEC? Can Kentucky return kickoffs at its nation-leading average of 38.5 yards per return, or at least get better-than-average returns? The Cats inserted a new field goal kicker last week, after Lones Seiber went 5-10 on the season with a blocked kick, and Ryan Tydlacka went 2-2 with a 45-yard attempt splitting the uprights. Will that continue?

3) Alabama's offensive line versus Kentucky's defensive line. The Tide has imposed their will on every opponent this season. The Wildcats front four have been dominating this season. Something has to give.

4) Kentucky's running game. Wildcat starter Tony Dixon hails from nearby Parrish, Alabama. Unfortunately, the UK captain has struggled this year, while seeing teammates Alfonso Smith and Derrick Locke have a yards per carry average at well more than double his. Will Dixon get untracked in Tuscaloosa, or will Smith and Locke perform when they get their opportunity?

5) Michael Hartline. The redshirt sophomore has done everything asked of him so far this season from the coaching staff. He has managed games, not made mistakes, and generally performed better than average. His one interception on the season came on a tipped pass that could have been caught, and he has avoided sacks by smartly throwing the ball away on occasion. This will be his toughest test, by far. And this may be the game where he will have to make things happen from the pocket more than any this season.

A lot of questions, even many more than are listed here. The oddsmakers have made the # 2 Tide a 16-1/2 point favorite over Kentucky. Last week we saw a top 5 Florida team fall at home, as 23-point favorites to Ole Miss. Will we see the same Saturday?

I don't think so. Kentucky is in a rebuilding season, and has lost too many team leaders from last year to win this game. Alabama has already defeated two top 10 teams on the season, and although the young Wildcats will play hard and absorb what Alabama dishes out to them, when the final gun sounds, I see an Alabama win, 27-14. Remember, though—I saw an LSU win last season over Kentucky, too. That's why they play the game.


Be sure and join Darrell Cartwright and Brian Eldridge, live from Bryant-Denny Stadium at KSR's "Virtual Tailgate Pre-game Party." Action will kick off at 1:30 p.m. CT, one-hour before gametime. Click below to have an email reminder to be sent.

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