In the days leading up to Kentucky football’s 49-21 loss to Alabama, Wildcats players and coaches did little to refute the suggestion the game was a second opportunity to prove capable of staying competitive against an elite team.
The Wildcats had previously been embarrassed at Georgia after a 5-0 start. Losses to Missouri and Tennessee followed, but there was hope the ship had been righted after the program’s first win at Mississippi State since 2008.
Instead, the statement made on Senior Day at Kroger Field was this Kentucky team was again not up to the task of facing a marquee opponent.
“The fight is there,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “I don’t ever question that. The execution and playing better is a different story.
“I don’t question our team’s fight or desire to win. You’ve got to compete at a different level. You’ve got to execute and be more precise when you’re playing teams like that.”
The opening 10 minutes went about as poorly as possible for Kentucky.
Alabama scored three touchdowns before Kentucky gained a first down. The first two touchdowns came on Jalen Milroe passes to receivers that had no Kentucky defender within 5 yards at the time of the catch.
After two Ray Davis runs and a Devin Leary sack resulted in a three-and-out on Kentucky’s first drive, offensive coordinator Liam Coen elected for a different strategy with a short pass on the first play of the second drive. Leary completed the pass to wide receiver Barion Brown 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage, but Brown fumbled, giving Alabama possession at the Kentucky 1-yard line.
A Milroe quarterback sneak followed for Alabama’s third touchdown, essentially deciding the outcome with 5:12 still remaining in the first quarter.
“I think in both games (against Georgia and Alabama) early on you see ourselves have so many self-inflicted wounds,” Leary said. “Whether we’re hurting ourselves getting penalties or me making a decision throwing the ball, just anything, it feels like you’re constantly playing catch-up.
“Honestly, playing a team like Alabama or playing a team like Georgia if you are in a catch-up mode it does feel like it’s getting out of hand because those are good football teams. That’s what they pride themselves on. I wouldn’t say it’s too much about us not getting up for a big game, but we need to be better.”
Kentucky did stabilize some after the initial onslaught.
It twice pulled within 14 points, but wasted chances to pull closer.
The Wildcats’ offense answered the defense’s first stop of the afternoon with a three-and-out. After a Jordan Lovett second quarter interception gave Kentucky the ball at midfield, Leary threw his own interception. When Alabama stopped a fourth-and-2 attempt at its own 9-yard line in the second quarter, it was clear the Wildcats had no realistic hope of clawing back into the game.
UK opened the second half with a touchdown, but Alabama responded with seven points of its own following a third-and-17 conversion earlier in the drive. The wheels fell off from there as Kentucky’s resolve appeared to break after Alabama made it clear there would be no second-half comeback.
“I think when you get into those kind of games and you get down quick, then people may start to press a little bit,” Coen said. “I press as a play-caller to try to create for the guys, and ultimately your overall execution just gets thinned out. You start to mess up a motion or a formation because you’re trying to press and do too much, trying to create on both sides.”
It can never be considered a surprise when a top-10 team handles an unranked squad, but this blowout loss only added fuel to the biggest criticism of Kentucky’s recent run of success.
The Wildcats have now lost to the four best teams on their 2023 schedule. It is possible none of the six teams Kentucky has beaten to reach bowl eligibility for an eighth consecutive season finish the year with a .500 record.
Beating rival Louisville, currently ranked 11th nationally, in the regular season finale could silence some of that criticism, but that would do little to ease fears about Kentucky taking a step back in a new-look Southeastern Conference that includes Texas and Oklahoma and more frequent matchups against the current West Division squads.
There is still a chance to rally for just the third eight-win regular season since 1984, but a winning record is not yet guaranteed.
“A lot of teams would love to be in the position we are,” Davis said. “A lot of teams would love to be able to play in a bowl game at the end of the season. Unfortunately, they’re not and we are, so we’ve got to be able to keep our spirits up and know there’s a lot of football left.”
Davis is right that there are more opportunities to write a happy ending to this season, but simply winning at South Carolina next week to clinch a winning record would do little to change the narrative.
Beating Alabama always looked like a tall task, but another blowout loss against an elite team makes it that much harder to change the perception of this Kentucky team.
“Those dudes, they have a little something to do with it,” Stoops said. “It’s not like our guys aren’t trying either. Those guys are pretty good.”
Kentucky at South Carolina
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 6-4 (3-4 SEC), South Carolina 4-6 (2-5)
Series: South Carolina leads 19-14-1
Last meeting: South Carolina won 24-14 on Oct. 8, 2022, in Lexington