CECIL HURT: No. 1 Alabama starts sluggishly, then starts slugging in KO of UK

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

For much of the first quarter, Alabama’s No. 1-ranked football team looked like it had spent the last two weeks of its unexpected and unwelcome three-week hiatus in hibernation. 

 Kentucky, playing without some key players due to COVID-19 and old-fashioned injuries, had a solid plan – not quite the “wadball” that Saban had mentioned earlier in the week, but conservative and ground-based.

Then one really bad play happened. The Wildcats, attempting a short field goal that would have cut Alabama’s early lead to 7-6, had a bad snap. In fact, it wasn’t just bad, it was atrocious, sailing past the UK holder and kicker at roughly the altitude of the pregame flyover. By the time Kentucky ran it down, the Wildcats had lost 36 yards and all hope, early though it was and slender though that hope may have been.

Like a toddler aroused from its afternoon nap, the Crimson Tide looked around and saw that its crib was stocked not just with Elmo dolls and teething rings but thermonuclear devices. So it started tossing out a Najee Harris here and a DeVonta Smith there, and that was that.

In the second half, it was more about the toddler showing it had been spoiled with gifts from the grandparents. “Oh, look, it’s a Jordan Battle Pick Six! A Roydell Williams! A Jase McClellan!” Here’s that Bryce Young you wanted!” “Here’s the special DeVonta Smith Punt Return Edition!” (That one probably has a warning label, since apprehensive Alabama fans were torn between seeing yet another thing that Smith does well and praying that he got a little experience in the role before the Auburn game without hurting himself.)

Nov 21, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses (32) stops Kentucky running back Kavosiey Smoke (22) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports

Alabama did nothing to shake its firm hold on the No. 1 ranking in the country in the 63-3 win. That ranking starts to matter this week when the College Football Playoff Selection Committee convenes in Dallas (no Zoom calls for them) and starts ranking the teams. Things can change a lot over four more weeks of play, but Ohio State didn’t seem poised to make a move and Alabama could at least start dreaming of a semifinal in New Orleans.

A couple of things do need to be mentioned. With a thinned roster, Kentucky eventually gave out in the second half, and that had nothing to do with the Wildcats' effort. Second, Alabama’s defense wasn’t great in the first half, at least outside of the red zone. Dylan Moses played but didn’t look like his old self after the layoff. There were rushing yards and third-down conversions that other offenses, starting with Auburn’s, can exploit. 

The best way to look at Saturday’s game is that it was a needed tune-up for an Alabama team, that the rust and barnacles accumulated in dry dock were scraped away quickly. The second-half glimpses into the future were a pleasant diversion. Young didn’t get to put every talent on display but made just enough magic to whet the appetite.

The remaining four games (including a presumptive SEC Championship Game meeting with Florida) will be different. They will depend on the forbearance of viruses and the good play of the usual stars: Smith and Harris, Mac Jones and Patrick Surtain. Slow starts won’t mean doom, not with the Alabama offense, but they won’t wind up being 63-3 either.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Sports columnist Cecil Hurt.