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The Alabama Crimson Tide football team will be in town Saturday. That doesn’t happen often.
The legendary program last graced our premises in 2013. Before that, it was 2009. Before that, it was 2004. That makes this weekend the fourth time in the last 20 years that Kentucky has played Alabama at home.
Usually, the Cats are gracious hosts. Alabama is 38-2-1 versus Kentucky overall, 16-2 when playing Kentucky in Kentucky. The first UK win came in 1922, by a 6-0 score at old Stoll Field. The second came in 1997 — Hal Mumme’s first season as UK coach — by a 40-34 overtime score.
In other words, beating Alabama is never easy. No different this year. Nick Saban’s team improved to 8-1 on Saturday with a 42-28 victory over visiting LSU. The triumph all but clinched yet one more SEC West title for the Crimson Tide, this time in the final year of the league’s divisional play.
Only here’s the thing: If you’re Kentucky, better to be playing Alabama at 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the SEC than 5-4 overall and 2-4 conference play. And, even worse, on a four-game losing streak.
Those were the stakes Mark Stoops faced Saturday night in Starkville. Taking on struggling Mississippi State in the home of the cowbells, Kentucky desperately needed a win. “By any means necessary,” Stoops said afterward.
And the Cats got it. As Stoops said, “It wasn’t pretty,” but it was convincing. Kentucky scored on its first offensive possession for a 7-0 lead. After holding State to a field goal at the end of a marathon 20-play, 12-plus-minute MSU drive, UK linebacker D’Eryk Jackson intercepted a Mike Wright pass and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead. By night’s end, Kentucky had clinched bowl eligibility for the eighth consecutive season with a 24-3 victory.
Devin Leary’s numbers weren’t off the charts. The Kentucky quarterback completed 13 of 22 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns. The numbers didn’t tell the whole story, however. Time and again, Leary managed to avoid the Mississippi State pass rush, wiggle out of an attempted to sack, and make a play.
Prime example: Third quarter. UK faced a third-and-7 from its own 28. Mississippi State’s pass rush again appeared to have Leary in its clutches before the QB spun free, scrambled to his right and located an open Tayvion Robinson for a 28-yard gain at the State 44. Two plays later, Leary connected with Robinson for a 19-yard gain.
Three plays later, Leary worked his magic act again, avoiding the rush in time to find Dane Key in the left corner of the end zone for what looked like a 13-yard score. Alas, Key couldn’t quite hold on to the ball as he hit the ground for what would have been a terrific catch. Instead, Alex Raynor’s 31-yard field goal gave UK the final margin.
“He’s stronger than people realize,” Robinson said of Leary.
Overall, before leaving the game in the fourth quarter because of an eye problem, Leary looks much more comfortable in Liam Coen’s offense. It showed in his 379-yard passing night in the loss to Tennessee. It continued Saturday. That’s a good sign.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s defense had suffered through a rough three-game patch, giving up 122 points to the likes of Georgia (51), Missouri (38) and Tennessee (33). That stopped Saturday.
True, without quarterback Will Rogers (shoulder) and running back Woody Marks (leg), State is not an explosive offense, but the Cats made sure it stayed that way, allowing a mere 218 yards.
“I’ve been proud of the effort of my guys all season,” defensive coordinator Brad White said.
Back to Bama. Saban’s squad has Kentucky (away), Chattanooga (home) and Auburn (away) before what is expected to be a huge SEC Championship Game collision with two-time defending national champion Georgia.
Can Kentucky derail the Tide train? History says no. No doubt this year’s betting line will agree. Still, it’ll be fun to have mighty Alabama back in town. And Kentucky enters Saturday in a much better spot than had Saturday’s outcome been different.