Considering the cloudiness of my crystal ball, let us look at the facts. Bama is: 16-3 in SEC openers in Tuscaloosa 16-3 in night games in Bryant-Denny Stadium All-time win-loss record in Bryant-Denny Stadium: 185-32-3
If you were to add up the scores of every game played between Kentucky and Alabama since 1922, the final score would look like this: Alabama 830 Kentucky 208
In thirty-four meetings between the schools Kentucky has come out on the winning side twice. If you are a Kentucky fan and believe numbers don't lie, I have two: 40 or 0. One or the other must be on opposite sides of the scoreboard if Kentucky is going to ride out of Tuscaloosa on the victory train. In 1922 Kentucky blanked Alabama 6 – 0, and in 1997 Kentucky stunned the Tide 40 – 34. Needless to say, the Kentucky "D" is not going to drop a goose egg on Alabama.
Battleship Lorenzen had better load up the cannon.
Here we go…
Alabama by: 14
Trenches: If nothing else, I saw something from the Wildcat offensive line on Saturday night that I had not seen all year, nastiness and attitude. Antonio Hall showed some genuine emotion while his entrenched amigos did some jawing and shoving of their own. Starting his first game at guard, D-Line convert Nate Van Sickel looked good, as did his backup red-shirt freshman Michael Aitchenson. Pass protection is paramount this week; tackles Hall and Jason Rollins will have their hands full trying to slow down the Bama defensive ends, especially the All-SEC Hall protecting Lorenzen's blind side. If Rollins struggles early it may be time to shift Sylvester "Big Kat" Miller from right guard back to left tackle where he was impressive as a junior.
The problem with the Kentucky O-line is run blocking, through three quarters against Murray State the Cats gained 47 yards on 23 carries. Any pretty boy can pass protect but to win in the SEC you have to get down and dirty, establishing the run. As an old high school coach used to say, "Boys it's a vicious violent game, and it's meant to be played that way!"
The Tide O-Line averages 6-foot-5 307 lbs, but against Oklahoma (and most men will be happy to hear this) size truly did not matter. The Tide O-Line was consistently beaten by the Oklahoma defense, giving up five sacks and sending quarterback Brodie Croyle scrambling for his life every time he dropped back to pass. That being said, Kentucky's defense will never be mistaken for Oklahoma, but they could give the Alabama front five more than they bargain for this week. The best match-up of the night will be Kentucky's Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns lining up against Bama's left tackle, Wesley Brit.
Quarterbacks: Jared Lorenzen's talent is undeniable; alone it is enough to take him to the NFL, but not enough to beat Alabama. The one thing Lorenzen has been without this season and desperately needs is time. Through the first two games of 2003 Lorenzen has had little time to do what a quarterback does, read the safety and let it fly. Despite rumors J-Lo is not all belly, the kid is all heart, and if anyone deserves a win in Tuscaloosa it is the "not-so-hefty -Lefty."
Shane Boyd could be the X-Factor against the Tide. The question is will the UK coaches finally figure out when and where to use him? Why not put Boyd on the field without Lorenzen? With J-Lo as a wide receiver you basically allow for an extra defender, anyone really think is going to run a fade route? How about this: Boyd (QB), Davis (TB), Rock (FB), Abney (WR), Burton (WR), Holt (WR), that my friend is speed, where does the defense commit? They don't, they are forced to play you honest. Look for Boyd to work the corner of the Bama defense with the option and up the middle on a quarterback draw.
Alabama's Brody Croyle is a 180-degree turn from last year's starter Tyler Watt's. Watt's was all about tucking the ball and heading up field, occasionally throwing the high percentage pass. Croyle has a strong arm and likes to spend as much time as possible in the pocket looking for the big play. Croyle does have the talent to play in this league; last season in his first career start against Arkansas he threw for 285 yards. Croyle has the potential to be a big time quarterback but is still trying to find his rhythm this season and if pressured or flushed out of the pocket is prone to throw the big interception. After last week's constant harassment look for Kentucky to bring the house early hoping to generate some bad flashbacks for the Bama QB.
Running Backs: I have no ideal what is going on in the Kentucky backfield! But as usual, I do have a couple of theories. Arliss Beach was hands-down the best runner versus Louisville, yet he only touched the ball four times. The UK coaching staff was so impressed with his performance they said they would make it a point for Beach to get more touches against Murray State, he had three. Theory: did not want Alabama to see their secret rushing weapon. Alex "bling-bling" Bwenge saw a lot more action from the tailback position after spending most of the Louisville game at fullback. Theory: Coaching staff watched Artose Pinner tapes from last season and realized to be successful in the SEC you need a back that is big, runs with power and can break the first tackle! You dare question the toughness of 5-foot-7 Draak "the-knee-hi-fly-by" Davis? Fact: Anyone who blows their nose with such intensity that it breaks a blood vessel in their eye, well then, that's man enough for me. Seriously, Davis has to get to the corner in order for Kentucky to mount any kind of rushing attack this Saturday. Bwenge and Beach need to hitch it up behind Rock Johnson, one of the most underrated fullbacks in the nation.
Alabama's Shaud Williams packs a very solid 191 pounds onto his 5-foot-8 frame. Through the first two game Williams has rushed for 189 yards on 45 carries for an average of 4.2 yards per rush. Williams is fast and has the ability to punch it through a crease or take it around the corner, he has soft hands and provides a steady safety valve out of the backfield. Williams has yet to break the century mark rushing this season, that changes this week as he racks up over 100-yards against the Wildcats. Williams's back-ups are Ray Hudson and Kenneth Darby; Hudson is one of the strongest and fastest players on the team. The Kentucky "D" had better not decide to take a breather with these guys in the game.
Receivers: I have been talking about Chris Bernard's big play potential since early last season; we finally got a glimpse of it last week. Bernard should be a factor again this week as Lorenzen looks to stretch the Alabama defense with the long ball. Glenn Holt is primed for a breakout game; by the third quarter he will have Alabama fans searching their program trying to figure out who this kid is. True freshman Keenan Burton is still "green-around-the routes" but will spend a fair amount of time in the middle of field, as well as working deep against man-coverage. The story for Kentucky this week is the return of Tommy Cook. Cook did not play against Louisville and only briefly tested his ankle against Murray State. Any rust on Cook will be all but gone by the second quarter as Lorenzen seeks out one of his favorite targets from the 2002 season. Let us not forget Mr. Wildcat, Derek Abney, Lorenzen loves to throw the ball his way; he just needs the time to get it there. If Bama continues their tendency towards man coverage it could be a big night for Mr. Abney and company.
Alabama senior Triandos Luke is one of Croyle's favorite targets and has a knack for taking the ball "to the house." 6-foot-4 Zach Fletcher has big play ability; through two games he is averaging 20.4 yards per catch. Dre Fulgham was Alabama's top returning receiver from a year ago and has the size to catch the ball across the middle. The Kentucky DB's better bring it when they come at Fulgham, he bench-presses over 455 pounds. This is a solid receiving unit that has yet to do anything spectacular this season and I do not expect that to change this weekend.
D-Line and Linebackers: Kentucky's Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns brings a streak of eight consecutive games with at least one tackle for loss and will make it nine against the Tide. Through the first two games Burns has been the only consistent down lineman for the Cats. He was so dominant against Louisville that a run scarcely came his way in the second half. His counterpart at the other end is Jeremy Caudill who has the talent and ability to disrupt any offense in the country. Caudill has appeared lost in Mike Archer's 3-4 scheme but seems to be finding his way after recording two sacks against Murray State. The combo of Ellery Moore and Lamar Mills will trade time at nose-guard. Mills star is ready to shine; this Saturday on national TV he introduces himself to the country as one of the up-and-coming defensive linemen in the SEC.
Kentucky freshman Durrell White made his first collegiate start at outside linebacker against Murray State and proved he is ready for the challenge ahead. White has the speed to disrupt the Bama backfield and the size to take on lead-blockers. At 6-foot-5 / 240 lbs linebacker Dustin Williams is a presence in the middle that Kentucky desperately missed against Louisville. Justin Haydock has been steady at the other middle linebacker, but I expect the physical make-up of reserve Chad Anderson to get him some reps this week. John Sumrall is the perfect Dime linebacker; Sumrall is quick, with a nose for the ball and is a playmaker that needs to be on the field. It is good to see Archer utilizing the individual strengths of his players, putting them in a position to excel and not fail. Along with outside linebacker Raymond Fontaine, this unit must contain the rushing game, forcing Bama put the ball the air.
Outside of quarterback, the biggest question for Alabama coming into the 2003 season was how the Tide would restore a defensive front that lost three members to the NFL. The question has been answered; ends Nautyn McKay-Loescher and Antwan Odom are the real deal and a serious threat to a Kentucky offensive line that has been soft around the edge. Tackle Ahmad Childress is a massive 6-foot-6 / 331 lbs, creating quite a hindrance at the line of scrimmage. Anthony Bryant makes up the other half of the Bama middle and has shown flashes of NFL caliber play. The problem for Bama's defensive line is depth, the front four do not have much of a supporting cast and will be asked to play almost every defensive down this Saturday.
For Kentucky to move the ball on the ground they must neutralize one the best linebacking units in the Southeastern Conference. Against Oklahoma the trio of Derrick Pope, DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach combined for 40 stops. Pope is the ringleader of this crew, and at 6-foot / 226 lbs he is not your prototype strong-side linebacker. Do not let the lack of size fool you, Pope is fast and physically powerful, you can expect to see #6 getting up from the bottom of many a pile this Saturday.
Secondary: Sophomore free safety Muhammad Abdullah has proven that he can deliver a blow, and has a nose for the ball, pulling down an interception in each of Kentucky's first two contests. Bo Smith is a legitimate cover corner and will find himself in man-coverage as Kentucky tries to disrupt Bama's passing game with blitzes. Claude Sagaille, Antoine Huffman, and Earven Flowers bolster a UK secondary that should have no problem covering the Bama receivers. Still waiting Leonard "Taco" Burress to come up with the big play, Burress is not the fastest player on the field but is a steady veteran that has a head for the game. Mike Williams will be utilized in blitz packages this week and will be asked to step up to the line of scrimmage to help reinforce the Kentucky run defense. With Croyle's tendency to try and rifle the ball into a tight spot, the Wildcat DB's pull down another interception this week.
The Tide secondary has yet to prove they can consistently handle the man-coverage they have been asked to play this season. The University of South Florida threw for 203 yards against the Tide, the following week Oklahoma tacked on 281 yards through the air. The Sooners took advantage of Bama's man-coverage by going over the top for two touchdowns of 46 and 47 yards. Free safety Charles Jones is the Tide's best DB bringing great run support and speed to break on the ball. Corner Charlie Peprah is a decent cover corner that loves to go for the interception, which may or may not be a good thing this Saturday. At 5-foot-9 Sophomore Anthony Madison is the smallest Bama DB, Kentucky will go after him in man coverage with either Burton or Holt, both 6-foot-2. Roman Harper is much improved coming into the 2003 season and will continue to provide sound run support from the strong safety position. This unit had better hope that the big boys upfront harass Lorenzen all night; if J-Lo has time to throw he will carve the Bama secondary up like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Special Teams: Much like the last time these two teams tangled in 1997, if Kentucky has visions of sugarplums and upsets dancing in their heads it is going to come down to the play of the Wildcat special teams. Kentucky has an All-American in Derek Abney and this week he takes off the Clark Kent glasses and puts on his cape, taking at least one return back for a touchdown. The real special team story has been Kentucky's Kickoff unit; through the first two games of 2003 they have held opposing teams to a measly 13.7-yard return average. Taylor Begley will be asked to split the uprights from deep this Saturday and Clint Ruth needs to continue helping out his coverage team by putting the ball inside the five-yard line. Punter Anthony Hunter did a good job against Murray State averaging 39 yards per kick, more than anything he restored confidence to a unit that was an absolute debacle against Louisville.
Alabama will drop Shaud Williams deep on punt returns, and anytime Mr. Williams touches the ball there is a chance he could take it to the end zone. Ray Hudson and Ramsee Robinson will handle the kickoff returns. Placekicker Brian Bostick showed off a big time leg against the Sooners nailing field goals from 36 and 44 yards.
In A Nut Shell: A couple of folks have asked me what I thought of the 2003 Kentucky team thus far. With all due respect, I'd like to quote Kentucky's all-time winningest coach, none other that the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant, who summed up my feelings this way: "You never know how a horse will pull until you hook him to a heavy load."
A cool autumn night in the South, anticipation echoes inside the heartbeat of player and fan alike, eighty thousand strong roar as the ball is kicked into the air! The load couldn't get much heavier for the Wildcats than Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. Either way it goes a night like this is what makes football the greatest game on the planet, this friends is what it's all about!
Comments, Questions & Praise may be emailed: UKPG2003@yahoo.com