1. It seems like Kentucky missed Derek Locke in the Georgia game. Will he be ready to go for the trip to Starkville? If not, how will that affect the Wildcats game plan?
Actually, I think our running game was adequate without Locke last weekend. We seemed to miss him more versus Auburn. But he won't be playing Saturday, and miss him or not, we have to deal with it.
You always miss a guy like Locke because of the attention the defense has to pay to a player with his kind of speed. Plus, he has become one of our best pass receivers, which really makes him dangerous on the wheel route and screens. Word is that he should be available for the Mississippi State game. Without Locke, it forces us to go more to the air to open up the running game. With him, we can run more and throw less, and balance is the key for the Kentucky offense when it is hitting on all cylinders.
2. Kentucky opened the season with 3 big wins, but over lesser teams. They have since only won 1 out of the last 5. What is the reason for the up and down this year?
The youth of the defense seems to be the biggest factor. We have only one senior starter on defense, and in the 2-deep depth chart, only four seniors appear. We have many sophomores and freshmen playing depth, and some of our most talented defensive linemen are either ineligible or taking a redshirt season. Defensively, we have given up 24 touchdowns out of 31 opponent attempts in the red zone. That's simply abysmal. Unless we can turn that stat around somewhat, Kentucky is going to have to score 35+ points to win any game from here on, except against an offensively impotent team.
The other reason seems to be our occasional explosions of turnovers. Against both Ole Miss and Georgia, both considered winnable games, we turned them into losses by giving the Rebels and the Dawgs the football deep in our own territory. Who can explain that? It isn't as if we turn it over every game, but when we do, it is in bunches and near our goal line. That has exacerbated the problem and forced the defense to defend short fields too often this year.
3. What is the fan perception of Joker Phillips as a head coach? Were most fans on board with his hiring? What about this far into the season?
I think the perception of Phillips is generally positive, although he is largely seen as a continuation of the Brooks regime. You have a small but vocal minority who didn't want him hired in the first place, and thinks that UK should try to hire an Urban Meyer or Nick Saban type in order to turn football into a perennial winner, as though that were only a matter of flashing a few million dollars at them. But the majority of fans support Phillips and thinks he has had a reasonable start so far.
Fans are disappointed that we don't have at least one more SEC win, and that will hang on Phillips. Most of the fan's ire, though, has been directed at Defensive Coordinator Steve Brown, because it has been Kentucky's defense that has been mostly responsible for losing the two winnable games, and for making UK look uncompetitive at Florida.
Of course, there is Derrick Locke, but I think we can consider him in the same group as Hartline and Cobb, and in any case, he won't be a factor on Saturday. Chris Matthews has become a dangerous big-play receiver, as has LaRod King. King has as many receiving touchdowns as Cobb (5) and has been one of Hartline's favorite targets in the opponent's red zone and on third and long. Both King and Matthews are big, fast guys, and when Hartline gets the time, he can usually get the ball to one of them, or to Randall Cobb.
Jordan Aumiller and Tyler Robinson are also becoming weapons at tight end, which means woe for opposing linebackers. The Wildcats also have dangerous depth at running back in Donald Russell and Raymond Sanders.
5. How do you see this game playing out?
I figure it will be a tale of "Can you stop this?" MSU has the second-best rushing offense in the SEC right behind Auburn and just ahead of Ole Miss. Ole Miss racked up 211 yards and a 4.1-yard average on the ground versus Kentucky, and Auburn 311 at almost a 6-yard average. If MSU can equal or top what Ole Miss did, never mind Auburn, Kentucky will have a tough night. UK will probably stack the box, leave the corners on an island and dare MSU to throw the football.
Stealing a little from Leonard's Losers, the flip side of that is that Mississippi State's pass defense is worse than Georgia's, and Kentucky piled up 353 yards and 31 points through the air against the Red Clay Hounds. The key for MSU will be their pass rush. If the Magnolia State Drool Dawgs can pressure Hartline, it will force him to throw shorter and quicker, and Raymond Sanders, Locke's likely replacement, isn't as good at finding openings when Hartline gets pressured. If the Dawgs cannot put pressure on Hartline, he is likely to shred MSU's secondary for big yards.
I don't think that Wildcats can stop the Bulldogs on the ground, and I don't think the Bulldogs can stop the Wildcats through the air. I have no idea who comes out on top in such a situation, but since the game is being played in Starkeville, you have to say that in an otherwise even game, the edge goes to the home team.