LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has given up trying to find a weakness in top-ranked Alabama for the Wildcats to exploit.
So the first-year head coach has been focused on his team, ensuring that the rebuilding Wildcats don’t leave openings for the powerhouse Crimson Tide to seize upon.
“They don’t have any weakness on their team,” Stoops said of Alabama, favored by 27 1/2 points. “As you can imagine, they’re the No. 1 team in the country. … It’s just about us and our execution. We’re going to go out there to compete and play.”
For all the progress that Kentucky (1-4, 0-2) in last week’s 35-28 loss at No. 13 South Carolina, the Wildcats will have to be perfect to have any chance of upsetting the Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) in Saturday night’s Southeastern Conference matchup.
Stoops isn’t conceding anything but knows the monumental task of toppling the two-time defending national champions. Alabama hasn’t allowed a touchdown in three games since escaping that 49-42 shootout victory at Texas A&M last month.
Saturday’s game marks the end of a grueling four-game stretch against ranked opponents for Kentucky. The Wildcats knew there would be some bumps along the way, but they also have reasons to be encouraged despite losing to the Gamecocks.
Sophomore quarterback Jalen Whitlow solidified a starting role after throwing for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and running for another to help bring Kentucky within a TD of South Carolina after trailing 21-0. Defense and special teams also contributed big plays in the comeback bid.
The good feelings have carried over into this week’s practices, but Kentucky will need more than momentum to overcome Alabama.
The Wildcats are 2-35-1 all-time against the Crimson Tide and haven’t beaten Alabama since Tim Couch led Kentucky to a 40-34 victory at Commonwealth Stadium in 1997. The last meeting Lexington was four years ago and Kentucky lost that one 38-20
Alabama’s win was part of an unbeaten season that began its current run of three BCS championships in four years. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is 5-0 against Kentucky including three wins while coaching LSU.
Though everything favors his team against the Wildcats, Saban has stressed taking nothing for granted to his players.
“Kentucky’s got a real good team, they’re well coached and they play hard,” Saban said. “They’ve played three top-20 teams the last three weeks very tough, and we have plenty of respect for what Mark Stoops and his team has accomplished this year. This is going to be a tough game for us.”
Here are five things to watch when No. 1 Alabama visits Kentucky:
ALABAMA QB: Senior AJ McCarron tied Harry Gilmer as Alabama’s third-winningest quarterback with last week’s 45-3 win over Georgia State and could be the career leader by season’s end. He needs four wins to surpass Jeff Rutledge (33) and six to supplant No. 1 Jay Barker. To put his career in perspective, McCarron has as many BCS championships (two) as career losses.
KENTUCKY INJURIES: Defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree (3.5 sacks) hadn’t practiced as of Wednesday because of a strained pectoral muscle and Stoops said he “didn’t look good” for Saturday. If the SEC’s sixth-leading sacker can’t go, freshman LB/DE Jason Hatcher is ready despite breaking his right hand in two places at South Carolina. Middle linebacker Avery Williamson and defensive back Blake McClain are also playing with casts.
CRIMSON TIDE SAFETIES: Sophomores Landon Collins and Geno Smith will see extensive action again at free safety with junior Ha Ha Clinton-Dix suspended indefinitely for accepting a loan from Tide strength and conditioning coach Corey Harris. Collins, whose 21 tackles rank third on the team, made two stops last week against Georgia State in his first start. Smith had a tackle and an assist.
JUMP START NEEDED: As Kentucky takes small steps forward under Stoops, the coach would love to see the Wildcats start better and avoid playing from behind. They certainly can’t afford to trail against Alabama or risk watching the Crimson Tide pull away quickly. “We can’t get behind the chains. We know we’re not very good behind the chains,” Stoops said.
HALL OF FAME HONOREE: Kentucky will recognize Steve Meilinger at halftime in advance of his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Meilinger played multiple positions on offense and defense under then-Wildcats coach Paul “Bear” Bryant from 1951-53 and helped Kentucky go 20-10-3 in his career.