The all time series between Mississippi State and Kentucky has been almost dead even, with Kentucky leading 21-20. The permanent cross division opponents have given the fans several close games over the years. Last year was no different. Kentucky came to Davis Wade Stadium as a fairly large underdog but managed to put up a fight. Mississippi State won a close one, 28-22. Kentucky would never really recover and finished with a 2-10 record.
This year's Kentucky team is not typical of years past. Mark Stoops has recruited well the last couple of seasons, and there are SEC athletes on both sides of the ball for this team. While the depth may not be there yet, the talent is present and it shows when you turn on the film.
Kentucky saw their 2014 season jump off to a strong 5-1 start. That 5-1 start included a come from behind win at home against South Carolina in which Kentucky reeled off 21 fourth quarter points. While South Carolina may not be the powerhouse team that they usually are, Kentucky teams of the past would have folded in the same situation. A close overtime loss on the road at Florida was the only game preventing this team from starting off 6-0. Even then, a questionable no call by the refs hurt the Wildcats in that ballgame.
Last week saw Kentucky take a step back in a 41-3 loss on the road at LSU. Is LSU back to playing LSU football or has Kentucky just been a pretender all this time? Only time will tell, but looking at the big picture, a game on the road against a 5-2 team that still has a chance to win its division shouldn't be taken lightly.
Mississippi State had a chance to bring its emotions back down to earth last week with a bye. The 38-23 home win against the #2 Auburn Tigers two weeks ago vaulted MSU to #1 in the country. They managed to stay there for a second straight week, even after Florida State defeated #5 Notre Dame. Surprisingly, Mississippi State actually gained votes on the Noles after that game.
Mississippi State takes their #1 ranking into what will be a tough environment to play in. Kentucky may be a basketball school, but make no mistake about it, a lot of elite teams have struggled in Commonwealth Stadium. The Bulldogs will need to be focused for this game. It doesn't matter who the opponent is when playing on the road in this conference because anything can happen.
Even though this game is on the road, this couldn't be a more favorable matchup for Mississippi State. Kentucky is giving up over 170 yards a game on the ground, and LSU embarrassed them for over 300 last week. The depth is just not there for this Kentucky defense yet.
When you have one of the best rushing duos in the country, why not use it? That would be the question I'd ask Mississippi State this week. Kentucky's pass defense has been one of the better units in the conference, so go exploit their weakness. While the Bulldogs would like to keep that near perfect balance between the rush and pass that they've displayed all year long, I don't think you'll see it this game. We may see the option with Dak and J-Rob more than we've seen it all year. This will finally be the week that Robinson gets over 20 carries. It hasn't happened yet, which is why he should be fresh for a game like this.
Not counting the suspended Todd Gurley, Josh Robinson leads the SEC in rushing ypg with 114 yards. Dak Prescott is fourth with 96 rushing ypg. That's right, a quarterback is fourth in the conference in rushing yards per game, and only a fraction away from being third. This spells trouble for Kentucky's defense, especially after the way they were manhandled by LSU last week.
Does anyone remember the game against Florida in the swamp back in 2010? 49 of Mississippi State's 58 plays were running plays. There was even one stretch where the Bulldogs kept it on the ground 24 times in a row. I'm not saying we'll see quite that much imbalance this week, but then again, it wouldn't surprise me. Pound, pound, and pound the rock some more. Don't let up until they prove they can stop it.
Mississippi State's defense has a favorable matchup as well, as Kentucky's offense has been middle of the pack. The strength has been the passing game, and Patrick Towles has been more than effective. Kentucky is throwing for right at 247 yards a game. I'm sure most of you will remember Towles' first career drive last year. It came in Starkville, and he looked sharp, completing 5 of 5 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown.
Kentucky usually uses the run game by committee at running back, but it hasn't been spectacular. They rank just 9th in the conference, rushing for 168 ypg. They struggled to run the ball at all last week against LSU with only 71 yards. As good as Mississippi State's front seven is, the run game for Kentucky will likely be a non factor this week.
The secondary of Mississippi State is what Kentucky will try to attack. Not to beat a dead horse, but State's pass defense still ranks dead last in the conference. The bad part is it's really not even close. MSU is giving up 308 ypg, and the next closest team is South Carolina at 239. To their credit, the Mississippi State defense leads the conference in passes defended. No one has really picked the Bulldog secondary apart, but the yards have come on long passing plays.
The Kentucky offense has had several long passing plays this season. That was showcased no better than their performance on the road against Florida where Towles threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns.
It's not Geoff Collins' nature to be conservative by any means, but he will likely defend the run with only 4 down linemen this week. The more players that are left to defend the pass, the harder it will be for Kentucky to move the football. It will be crucial for Preston Smith and the rest of the defensive line to get pressure on Towles and force him into quick throws. If the Bulldogs can get pressure without having to blitz, Kentucky is in for a long day.
If you would have told me before the season that the Mississippi State vs. Kentucky game would be the 2:30 game on CBS, I would have told you you were crazy. Nobody thought Mississippi State would be #1, and nobody thought Kentucky would beat South Carolina and be as improved as they are. This is the first time Mississippi State has played a game as the top ranked team in the nation, and they will find out what it's like to be the hunted instead of the hunter. Everybody is going to be gunning for them, and it all starts this week. When you're the #1 team in the country, you are going to get every team's best effort. I don't think it will matter this week. Mississippi State has so much more depth, and I'm not confident at all in Kentucky's defense to stop Dakman and Robinson. It may be closer than some expect, but Mississippi State will win this game and the #1 ranking will live on for at least one more week.
Numbers to Know
Kentucky's run defense rank in the conference, just ahead of Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Texas A&M. The Wildcats gave up over 300 yards rushing to the LSU Tigers in their 41-7 loss last weekend in Baton Rouge, so rest assured that MSU will come out with a ground-game focus on Saturday.
No, not MSU's ranking. This number refers to exactly how many defensive stands stood between MSU and a Kentucky victory in last year's narrow 28-22 win in Starkville. MSU played very, very sloppy in last year's game, and the Wildcats came to play, resulting in a game that was much too close for comfort. A Taveze Calhoun tackle saved a touchdown, and MSU ultimately got a stop on 4th and 7 to keep Kentucky out of the endzone and from winning a game they probably deserved to win. Hopefully Dan has reminded this team of that performance last year and of the fact that the season is far from over.
Yards per game passing for Kentucky's Patrick Towles, which is good for sixth-best in the conference (just behind one Dakota Prescott). Towles is a talented, tall presence in the pocket for UK, and he will certainly look to stretch the MSU secondary on Saturday to create big plays and try to get his team out in front of the #1-ranked Bulldogs. MSU will need to create a good pass rush against the Kentucky line that ranks second to last in the conference in sacks allowed (16 so far this year).