With news of Andrew and Aaron Harrison committing and Keeneland opening its gates for the fall, it’s easy to forget many of the activities happening in Lexington around this time of year. One activity that seems to be way down on Lexington’s priority list is the coming football game against Mississippi State this Saturday. History says this game would be competitive, but this isn’t your Grandfather’s Mississippi State squad, on the young season Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs are 4-0 and have outscored their opponents by a grand total of 144-53. While that margin is inflated due to strength of opponent played, the Bulldogs have obviously built upon last season’s 7-6 record. Kentucky, however, is headed in the opposite direction as a program, evidenced by our 109-154 scoring margin so far this year. Even though Kentucky has faced a much more daunting schedule thus far and gets the Bulldogs at home, Mississippi State’s no longer the slouch they’ve historically been. That being said, the Bulldogs do many things well on both sides of the ball that could give the Wildcats fits come tomorrow.
One strength of the Mississippi State squad is their staunchly efficient pass defense which has allowed on average only 5.7 yards per passing attempt (T-17th nationally). In this category MSU has been even more efficient than Louisville and South Carolina who possess very stingy defenses as well. This efficient pass defense is partly due to the high rate of interceptions they force. In four games the Bulldogs have forced 9 picks, which is good for a second place tie nationally with Alabama, TCU, and USC. Certainly elite company. As I’m sure you remember Kentucky is in a bit of a pickle when it comes to Quarterback play as Maxwell Smith is out indefinitely with a torn ligament in his ankle. What once would’ve been a great match-up of good passing vs good defense has turned into a match-up of good defense vs two true freshman Quarterbacks who combine for a full game of playing experience. While Jalen Whitlow proved to be successful against South Carolina, it remains to be seen how he can perform against a defense who has prepared thoroughly for him.
One area where Kentucky must prepare heavily for against MSU is their efficient rushing attack. In their four games the Bulldogs are averaging 5.05 yards per carry which places them 31st nationally ahead of teams such as Florida, Clemson, and Alabama. The main reason for this great level of efficiency in their spread option offense is stud running back, LaDarius Perkins. So far he has touched the ball 57 times this year amassing 389 yards (6.8 per carry) and has obtained 5 touchdowns as well. Derrick Milton and Josh Robinson complete the Bulldog backfield. While the two have only combined for 1 touchdown, they’re averaging 6.3 and 5.0 yards per carry respectively which would appear to be a mismatch for Kentucky’s defense. As it currently stands Kentucky is allowing 4.27 yards per carry, good for a tie with Florida International at 73rd nationally. A common occurrence for Rick Minter’s defense thus far is being completely gashed in the rushing game. Only once on the season has Kentucky’s defense allowed less than 4.2 yards per carry (Western Kentucky was held to 3.2). Mississippi State is a primary rushing team so look for them to exploit this weakness early and often come Saturday.
These programs who were recently identical in terms success and talent certainly find themselves on two different levels currently. According to my rating system (which is still suffering from small sample syndrome) Mississippi State is given a 61% chance of victory on Saturday. Other systems tend to agree; WhatifSports.com predicts a 71% chance of victory and Jeff Sagarin’s system predicts an 8 point victory for the Bulldogs. While this game shouldn’t be on the level of the Florida and South Carolina blowouts, Mississippi State has demonstrated to be the better team. What will it take to obtain a 2nd Wildcat victory and overcome these odds? Stopping an efficient run game and passing against a very sturdy Bulldog secondary would be a start. Certainly not an easy task, though.