It’s rivalry week! Or at least it technically is, shoutout to Mike “The Godfather” Slive. The Kentucky Wildcats are coming to Starkville this weekend for our annual cross-divisional rivalry game boasting a 5-1 record and might be the best Wildcat team Dan Mullen has seen at MSU. To preview a this key matchup for the Bulldogs is Jamie Boggs from A Sea of Blue, our SB Nation friends of the Kentucky persuasion. I returned the favor over on their site, you can check that out here.
1) 2017 has been an irregular year for Kentucky football, currently finding themselves at 5-1 and in 2nd place in the SEC East with key remaining matchups at Georgia as well as a rivalry game at home versus Louisville. What were expectations for the Wildcats coming into the season and what are they for the rest of the season?
Jamie: Expectations were high compared to recent years, with a favorable schedule and several returners on both sides of the ball. Many pundits were projecting 7-8 regular season wins. Despite a few key injuries on the defense and offensive line, I think most projections would actually be higher at this point. After the 5-1 start and with Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Louisville struggling, there could be an extra win or two on the board. I could see 8 or 9 wins being a reality, and it is very reasonable that Kentucky could finish 2nd in the east.
2) Even with a 5-1 record, some are saying that Kentucky isn't the team their record shows. The Wildcats' toughest competition to this point has been a home heartbreaker to #20 Florida and now we've seen that same Florida team lose at home to LSU, who lost to MSU by 30 on the road. What are we to make of Kentucky at this point of the season? Are they contenders or pretenders?
It is honestly hard to tell at this point. After looking dominant at South Carolina and controlling Florida for three quarters, the Wildcats struggled against Eastern Michigan and barely beat a reeling Missouri team. Thus far, they have played to the level of competition in every game. If they are able to beat the spread at Mississippi State on Saturday (10 points), I believe it will show that they are for real. Getting blown out would likely expose them though and could derail the momentum they have going into the second half of the season.
3) Last year against MSU, the home crowd saw the Wildcats put on quite the offensive performance. QB Stephen Johnson passed for 292 yards (his 3rd highest of the season), 2 touchdowns and completed passes to seven different receivers. RB Benny Snell Jr carried the ball 19 times for 128 yards, a touchdown and averaged 6.7 yards per carry (his 3rd highest of the season). Will we see the same type of production on Saturday? Who are some other guys Bulldog fans should keep an eye out for?
Given Benny Snell's impressive freshman campaign, many defenses have keyed on him and he has not been able to produce the numbers he did a year ago. Stephen Johnson, on the other hand, continues to show more composure and maturity. He has also had a few weapons show up that may not previously be on your radar. Garrett "Juice" Johnson has been Stephen Johnson's favorite target so far this season, both with the long ball and getting him open in space in the short passing game. True freshman Lynn Bowden has also shown some electric play-making abilities that offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran is still learning to utilize. But in order for Kentucky to be successful in SEC play, they have to get tight end CJ Conrad more involved. He has NFL talent and is very dangerous, and I look for him to get several targets on Saturday.
4) As a lifetime MSU fan, I've always found the permanent cross-division rivalry with Kentucky to be rather strange. The basketball side of things has grown into a fun series, albeit a not super competitive one, but things on the football side have always seemed like this is an expected win for MSU every year. What are Kentucky fans feelings toward MSU and do you feel that this can ever become a true "rivalry'?
I definitely think the feeling is mutual. I do not believe any Kentucky fans feel like this is a legitimate rivalry. The most common sentiment is that if there is anyone in the West that Kentucky has to play every year, Mississippi State is not a bad draw. Although the Wildcats have not seen much success in this annual game, there is always hope for a win that may not exist against one of the perennial powers in the West (Alabama, Auburn, LSU). However, there does not seem to be a natural rival for Kentucky otherwise. So Big Blue Nation is satisfied with this yearly match-up.
5) Prediction time! Right now, Vegas has the Wildcats as 10.5 point underdogs in Saturday's matchup. Who are you putting your hypothetical money on and how do you see the game playing out?
If this game was played in Lexington, I would be tempted to predict an upset. However, I do not believe the Wildcats are good enough to get this win on the road. With their track record of keeping games close, though, I do believe the Wildcats beat the spread. I think they score enough to keep the game within reach, but ultimately fall 34-27.