By LARRY VAUGHT
Alabama is the defending national champion, ranked No. 1 and unbeaten this season. Kentucky is coming off a 2-10 season, only 1-4 this year and at the start of a rebuilding process for new coach Mark Stoops.
But Alabama coach Nick Saban is not underestimating UK even though Alabama is a 27-point favorite for Saturday night’s game.
“We expect this to be a difficult game,” Saban said. “I think our players need to prepare for this team with a lot of respect, and I think our players understand how difficult it is to play on the road in our league.”
Saban praised the way UK’s defense has played as well as the special teams — and indicated that special teams play normally says a lot about a team’s toughness.
Stoops has been pleased with his team’s attitude most of the season and knows they are “excited” to play the nation’s top-ranked team. However, he doesn’t want any talk of a moral victory in the 35-28 loss at South Carolina last week.
“We don’t ever classify anything as a moral victory, really. That’s been asked to me. I am proud of progress. I am. I think our team has made strides throughout the year, but we’re after victories. But I think we are improving in certain areas, and that’s a good thing,” Stoops said.
He knows how difficult Saturday’s game could be.
“I think they’re just so well-coached. They execute so well. They can be as multiple as they want to be on both sides of the ball and they can just line up and use great technique and play good football, the way — old-fashioned football. They’re a very good team and they can be as multiple as they want to be on offense, defense or special teams,” Stoops said.
Alabama’s special teams have been special this season. Return specialist Christion Jones already has a touchdown on a kickoff and a punt return.
“They got a big-time playmaker. He does a phenomenal job with the punt returns. He’s on kickoff, catching balls on offense. He’s lighting it up. Very good players and they’re well-coached and they play hard,” Stoops said.
But Stoops seems as impressed with the Alabama coaches as the Alabama players.
“There’s so many good coaches out there, but this group is really unbelievable in their preparation, very well coached team,” Stoops said. “They do what they do extremely well and have plenty of change‑ups off of it. It will be a challenge. And they certainly have a lot that they can use when they choose to use it. I think each week they game plan things and change things up, but I’m not sure exactly how he goes about it or why. I just know they are very good. They are multiple when they want to be, and they are extremely sound technique‑wise.
“I’ve obviously known about coach Saban for a long time. I don’t know him personally, but of course when you run into somebody in recruiting and different things, just for a long time, I’ve had a lot of respect for him and just would talk to him occasionally here and there. I just really appreciate the way he coaches and how successful he’s been and how consistent his teams have been. He’s definitely somebody that I look up to. I guess I’ve known about him a long time. I’m not sure how many years, but certainly been watching his defenses for a long time.”
Stoops just hopes the Cats, who fell behind 21-0 at South Carolina, continue to understand and believe they can win games if they play well.
“If we truly believe, if we go about our business, if we work the right way, if we prepare the right way and execute and make plays when the game is on the line — we had every opportunity to win that game and that’s a very good team, very well coached and we have a lot of respect for them,” Stoops said. “But had we done some things right, we could win that game. And that’s taking nothing away from them, because I know every coach can say that. Everybody can say they always do things better; we all feel that way
“We mentally need to be stronger and make plays and understand and have a better awareness about us when we are on the field, because the game changes all the time, every play. Every play’s different. We’ve got to have a better understanding of what we’re doing and execute things better.”