Typically a matchup between a Southeastern Conference team and a school from the FCS results in a lopsided battle. Why a win is still (somewhat) expected out of the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday, don't be surprised to see the Alabama State Hornets keeping it a close ballgame throughout the afternoon.
Kentucky is fresh off a narrow defeat in Starkville, Miss. where the Wildcats dropped to 1-6 on the season after losing 28-22 to the Mississippi State Bulldogs. A failed fourth-down conversion ended their hopes of an upset with 21 seconds remaining in the game.
The primary concern for the Wildcats at this juncture is who is lining up under center. Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith played with an ailing shoulder against Mississippi State, and while the injury limited his effectiveness throwing downfield, he's proven to be a capable passer in offensive coordinator Neal Brown's version of the Air Raid.
The problem? Kentucky doesn't seem to trust Smith.
Sophomore passer Jalen Whitlow came in on third down on the final series against the Bulldogs, only to run straight into a wall of defenders. Smith came back on for fourth down. Does that instill confidence in a young quarterback?
This week, head coach Mark Stoops plans to start Whitlow, despite him dealing with a shoulder injury. Smith and freshman quarterback Reese Phillips will be in the mix if Whitlow needs to come out.
For Alabama State, all eyes will be on junior running back Isaiah Crowell. The former SEC back gets another shot at big-time competition, and he's eager to prove himself again. However, Crowell has been battling an ankle injury for several weeks now. He won't be 100 percent against Kentucky.
Crowell rushed for just 19 yards on 11 carries in 17 snaps last week. But, from the way he sounds, giving the Wildcats his all is a priority regardless of the ankle. Malcolm Cyrus has been solid out of the backfield as well, averaging nearly 108 offensive yards per game.
The good news? The Hornets defense limits opponents to an average of 2.6 yards per carry, which could force Whitlow/Smith/whoever is playing quarterback to rely more on the passing game. The bad news? Kentucky averages 4.6 yards per carry, and the Hornets give up 285.4 yards passing per game.
But keep in mind the Wildcats are 1-6. They are terrible on third down, converting 25 percent of these situations. Twenty-five percent. They don't fare well against the run (17 rushing touchdowns allowed in 2013). Sure, they're playing some of the toughest teams in the nation, but it would not be a stretch of the imagination to believe this game will come down to the wire.
Alabama State has never played an SEC opponent. At least it’s embarking on program history against one of the most favorable matchups it could find from this conference.