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Good start key as UK finishes off tough stretch vs. No. 1 Alabama

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Quarterback Jalen Whitlow leads UK into a Saturday matchup with top-ranked Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Quarterback Jalen Whitlow leads UK into a Saturday matchup with top-ranked Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Over the last month, Kentucky has played an unprecedented stretch of difficult games.

First was a matchup with No. 7 Louisville. Two weeks later, the Wildcats had a bye week to prepare for No. 19 Florida. The next Saturday, they would head on the road for a test against No. 13 South Carolina. To finish it off, UK will welcome top-ranked Alabama.

Could there be a more fitting way to cap the first set of four consecutive games against top-20 opponents in school history than by facing the two-time defending national champion?

"Another very tough task playing Alabama, extremely well coached team, very physical, and everything they are built up to be," head coach Mark Stoops said. "They deserve all the credit they have been given for what they have done through the course of this year, and of course with their history.

In evaluating the Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference), Stoops could not be more impressed. With his defensive background, Stoops has admired Alabama head coach Nick Saban for years and scarcely sees a weakness in his team.

"It's almost a pro attack on both sides of the ball," Stoops said. "They are very efficient and very accurate with the ball, with all the short game stuff. And of course they can run the ball. So they can move the ball. They just, honestly, they'd just as soon do it with what they want to do. If they need to score a bunch of points, they'll score a bunch of points. If they want to run the ball, they'll run the ball. They're very efficient with everything they do, really."

With an Alabama team that does everything well coming to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), how then do the Cats approach the task they will face?

"It's just about us and our execution as well," Stoops said. "We're gonna go out there to compete and play. It's about putting one good play out there and then another. We can't get ahead of ourselves. We can control the things we can control, and we can execute better than we have been."

That's what UK has been working on this week.

The Cats are less than a week removed from nearly overcoming a 21-0 deficit at South Carolina. Led by Jalen Whitlow -- who took over full time at quarterback after sharing snaps with Maxwell Smith to start the year -- UK outscored the Gamecocks 28-14 over the final 44:20.

"The biggest thing was that we just didn't give up," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "I just feel like the team, we stuck together and in the second half we put it in our heads that we were going to come back and fight and try to get a victory. We came up short, but we didn't give up. We were that close and I feel like if we could have done the little things right we could have had the game."

Stoops now wants his team to carry that knowledge forward.

"I just hope we continue to understand that we can win these games," Stoops said. "It's not just me up here talking about that. 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."

Clearly, the same sentiment applies to Alabama.

The Crimson Tide ranks 12th nationally in total defense -- representing the third top-12 defense UK will face during this four-game stretch -- and that includes the 628 yards Alabama gave up in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel.

"They're pretty good," Whitlow said. "Every week we try to find a weakness in the defense and try to exploit it. But Alabama seems to have less because, you know, they're a good football team. They won the last three out of four national championships, so we're just going to keep studying film and keep preparing until Saturday and see what happens."

Just as the Cats agree about the magnitude of the challenge awaiting them on offense, they also know a getting off to a good start will be crucial to taking it on. Unfortunately, UK has had trouble out of the gate as opponents have scored first in all four of the Cats' losses.

"You got to go out there and execute and get off to a better start," Stoops said. "We understand that. I think it's really just about the things we've been preaching, and that's getting off to one good play. Let's have one good play and then try to stack another one on there and then another one."

The Cats are following their coach's lead and will attack the game in chunks, but they can't help but step back and consider the stage they'll be playing on Saturday. UK hasn't taken on a top-ranked team since 2011 and last defeated one in 2007 -- an unforgettable triple-overtime win over LSU.

"It's very exciting," Williamson said. "It's going to be a great challenge. They've got a lot of talent on the team. It's going to be a great chance to go against the best in America."

Freshman Jason Hatcher has some experience in these kinds of games, but from a different perspective. In high school, he played on a Trinity team that won state titles his final three seasons and claimed a national championship in 2011. Hatcher likes the idea of being on the other side now.

"I like being the underdog because nobody's really expecting it," Hatcher said. "When we go out there and we stop teams and we force three-and-outs, that's a great feeling."

UK knows Alabama will be the favorite over any team it faces for a reason and the Cats respect the Crimson Tide a great deal. They won't, however, be in awe when they line up on Saturday.

"They're a team just like us," Williamson said. "They're human, so go out there and play."

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