Lexington, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - The top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide get back to conference action this weekend, as they hit the road to battle the Kentucky Wildcats in an SEC matchup at Commonwealth Stadium.
The two-time defending champions stepped out of league play last week and made light work of Georgia State, 45-3. It really hasn't mattered who the competition has been in 2013. With the exception of a shootout with Texas A&M, Nick Saban's squad has won four of its five games by 25 points or more.
Mark Stoops is in his first season at Kentucky. His tenure in Lexington has gotten off to a slow start, as the Wildcats have won just once in their first five games. That victory came in week 2, a 41-7 win over Miami-Ohio. The team has lost three straight games since, although the last two have come against nationally-ranked foes in Florida (24-7) and most recently, South Carolina (35-28).
Kentucky has had very little success against Alabama all-time, with the Crimson Tide winning 35 of the 38 meetings (35-2-1). Alabama has won four straight matchups, including a 38-20 decision in the last meeting in 2009.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron wasn't needed long against Georgia State, but left a lasting impression on the Panthers nonetheless, completing a ridiculous 15-of-16 passes, for 166 yards and four first-half touchdowns in UA's romp last weekend.
McCarron is one of the nation's premier signal callers and has certainly not disappointed in his last season in Tuscaloosa, completing an impressive 71.4 percent of his passes thus far, for 1,048 yards and 10 TDs. The Crimson Tide still rely on the run (166.2 ypg) and have a talented workhorse in T.J. Yeldon (445 yards, 6.2 ypc, 4 TDs), but McCarron has a deep and talented receiving pool at his disposal and the Crimson Tide are more balanced as a result.
A number of receivers can make plays, led by Christion Jones (20 catches, 232 yards, 2 TDs) and DeAndrew White (15 catches, 212 yards, 3 TDs).
Despite all the yards and points the Crimson Tide allowed to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies, the defensive numbers are still impressive. On the season, Alabama ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense (12.2 ppg) and 12th in total defense (299.8 ypg). The team is extremely stingy against the run at a mere 85.8 yards per game (sixth nationally)
Leading the charge is All-American and Butkus Award nominee C.J. Mosley. The veteran linebacker paces the team in tackles (41), with 3.5 TFL. The secondary took a hit with the recent suspension of HaHa Clinton-Dix (24 tackles), but there is still quality depth in the defensive backfield, led by safety Vinnie Sunseri (17 tackles, 2 INTS).
Mosley relishes his role as a veteran leader for Alabama.
"It all comes from experience and maturity. Coming in, I just wanted to lead by example. I just do my part the older I get, and the more I learn this defense. I'm one of the main senior leaders on this defense. I give feedback to the younger guys. I have to teach them. I tell them I'm going to be gone soon, so it will be up to them after that."
It will take some time for Stoops to turn Kentucky around, but there are definitely signs of improvement, with the offense averaging 388.8 ypg. Balance has been the key for the Wildcats, with 162.2 ypg on the ground and 226.6 ypg through the air.
The quarterback position has been unsettled in the early stages, but may be settling, as Jalen Whitlow is coming off a strong effort against South Carolina, completing 17-of-24 passes, for 178 yards and two TDs, while rushing for 69 yards and another score. A dual-threat that may be gaining confidence as a passer, Whitlow also leads the Wildcats in rushing (238 yards, 3 TDs).
Javess Blue (22 catches, 275 yards, 1 TD) and Ryan Timmons (19 catches, 209 yards, 1 TD) are the top targets in the passing game.
The Wildcats have some weaknesses on defense that Alabama will attempt to exploit. Kentucky is allowing 391.2 yards per game to the opposition and has definitely struggled against the run, with foes averaging 196.2 yards per game, on 4.7 yards per carry.
Senior middle linebacker Avery Williamson leads the Wildcats in total tackles with 51 stops. Junior ends Alvin Dupree (28 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and Za'Darius Smith (22 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) are a formidable duo coming off the edges.
Stoops knows the challenge in front of him and his team this weekend.
"It's going to be difficult, it definitely is. There's so many good coaches out there, but this group is really unbelievable in their preparation, very well coached team. They do what they do extremely well and have plenty of change ups off of it, and yeah, it will be a challenge, and again, very well balanced."