Tide schedule preview: Kentucky

Editor's note: The season is nearly upon us and TideNation is taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Tuesday and Thursday we'll go through each week of the Crimson Tide's schedule, starting with the season-opener against Virginia Tech and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown

2012 overall record: 2-10

2012 SEC record: 0-8, last in the SEC West

Record all time against Alabama: 1-2-35

Last meeting: Alabama 38, Kentucky 20 in 2009

Starters returning

Offense: 6; Defense: 6; Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

DT Mister Cobble, DE Alvin Dupree, DB J.D. Harmon, Dyshawn Mobley, DT Donte Rumph, RB Raymond Sanders, QB Maxwell Smith, QB Jalen Whitlow

Key losses

S Mikie Benton, WR La'Rod King, S Martavius Neloms, C Matt Smith, OG Larry Warford, RB CoShik Williams, DE Taylor Wyndham

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Raymond Sanders* (669 yards)

Passing: Maxwell Smith* (975 yards)

Receiving: La’Rod King (488 yards)

Tackles: Avery Williamson* (135)

Sacks: Alvin Dupree* (6.5)

Interceptions: J.D. Harmon* (2)

What they're saying:

"I'm a defensive guy. This is the SEC. It's a physical conference. I realize that. I want to be tough, and I want to be physical. We have to build this foundation with great defense. There's no way around it. If you don't play great defense, you're not going to win consistently," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said at his introductory press conference.

Three things to watch:

1. New coach, new mindset: It's a rarity, but after failing to reach the NCAA tournament in basketball, a football coach might be the most popular man in Lexington. Former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, who became the Wildcats' new coach of the gridiron in late November, has taken to the Bluegrass State with a bang, so much so that he helped draw a whopping 50,831 fans out to Kentucky's usually deserted spring game in April. He's already done what no coach has been able to do at Kentucky: recruit. He has the Wildcats at No. 12 in the RecruitingNation class rankings, where prior to this year they had never finished among the top 25. Whether that momentum translates to the football field is anyone's guess, but any progress is a good sign for a program that hasn't reached double-digit wins since 1977.

2. Options under center: On the bright side, Stoops has a number of options at quarterback. On the not-so-bright side, none of the options have been particularly impressive thus far. Three sophomores -- Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow -- are all vying for playing time and none of the three has done much to separate themselves. The most impressive by the numbers last season was Smith, who threw for the most yards and touchdowns and had the highest completion percentage among the three, but Whitlow has the edge in terms of athleticism. As Stoops said, "It's still an open competition out there," meaning the summer will be crucial for all three signal-callers.

3. Winning up front: If you're going to start building a team in the SEC, you'd be wise to start with the line of scrimmage, and in that regard Stoops is lucky to have the defensive line he inherited from Joker Phillips. Mister Cobble, Alvin Dupree and Donte Rumph make up a solid nucleus and the addition of junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith could put the line over the top. The former No. 2-rated defensive end prospect in the ESPN 100 chose Kentucky over offers from West Virginia, Texas A&M, Auburn, Texas and Florida State, and will push for playing time right away. Coupled with potential all-conference linebacker Avery Wiliamson, Stoops has the beginnings of a front seven that can compete in the SEC.