In ranking the level of difficulty of Kentucky’s six remaining opponents, Mississippi State is number one on my list. Not necessarily the most talented team if you worship at the altar of recruiting stars, but it is the most complete, consistent, developed, and experienced roster. To top it off, they’re led by the league’s best quarterback. Add in a little geography, or Starkville to be specific, and Saturday will require a monumental effort for the Cats to steal an SEC road win.
The Dogs are 5-2. A win on Saturday would ensure Coach Dan Mullen his sixth consecutive bowl season. MSU has also won 11 of its last 12 home games and 16 straight against non-ranked opponents. UK travels south at 4-2. Mark Stoops is in search of his first postseason in three years. At the time this post was sent to the esteemed KSR editorial staff, the spread sits at 11 points. However, SEC statistics tell a different story. By the numbers, the Cats and Dogs are eerily similar. Here’s a breakdown by advantages in position groups:
Through QB Dak Prescott’s 27 career starts, the Bulldogs have averaged 465.4 yard per game. His record as a starting quarterback is 19-8. For the season, he’s 148-225 for 11 TD’s and zero interceptions. He’s also rushed for 254 net yards and 4 scores. Considered by many as the SEC’s top quarterback, Prescott is equally impressive as a team leader and student of the game.
Patrick Towles is coming off an efficient and, at times, elite performance against Auburn. For the season, Pat’s completed 123-200 passes for 1,512 yards, and 8 touchdowns, but has thrown 7 costly interceptions. Patrick Towles is a Top 5 SEC quarterback and an NFL prospect. Monitoring southeastern media outlets, many feel that Saturday’s game is a matchup of the SEC’s two best quarterbacks.
Even though he’s missed six quarters, Boom Williams currently ranks 7th in the SEC in rushing yards per game with 91.7 yards an outing. JoJo Kemp and Mikel Horton have provided timely carries. As a group, Kentucky has more production from their running backs. Will Tom Collins is a consistent and physical blocker to lead the way at fullback.
The Dogs run the ball by committee. Brandon Shumpert, Brandon Holloway, Dontavian Lee, and Aries Williams are listed as the Dogs four RB’s. Of the four, Brandon Holloway leads with 36 carries for 174 yards for the season. That’s good for 22.9 yards per game. If you can’t tell, Dak Prescott IS the Miss State offense.
Offensive Line-Miss State
LT Rufus Warren 6’7 299 Sr
LG Justin Malone 6’7 320 Sr
C Jamaal Clayborn 6’4 315 Sr
RG Devon Desper 6’4 305 Jr
RT Justin Senior 6’5 295 Jr
The Bulldogs are averaging 34 points and 425 yards per game. The OL has been good, but not dominant. This especially applies to the run game. However, the Bulldog OL has effectively protected Dak Prescott. With three seniors and two juniors, the MSU OL is experienced and crafty. Their experience up front is a testament to the program’s ability to redshirt newcomers and strategically recruit junior college prospects. To compare the two, UK starts only one senior in its front five.
Kentucky’s offensive line quietly bounced back from a poor performance against EKU as the Wildcats exploded for 497 yards against Auburn. That number is the most that the Tigers have surrendered in 2015. They did allow three QB sacks, but at least one of the three could be considered a coverage sack. UK has settled in on its starting five: Swindle, Myers, Toth, Haynes, and Meadows. That’s one senior, a junior, and three sophomores.
Fred Ross leads in receptions with 38, however the 6’5 210 pound De’Runnya Wilson has five touchdowns. Fred Brown is becoming a more consistent threat, especially across the middle of the field, with 16 receptions for 250 yards and one touchdown. In addition to the primary three, the Dogs’ receiving corps is deep, substituting situationally even though injuries have limited their rotation. As a group, MSU is the most physically imposing unit that Kentucky’s faced in seven games. Starting TE Gus Walley was injured in last weekend’s game against Louisiana Tech, but they won’t miss a beat from his replacement – 6’7 260 pounder Darrion Hutcherson.
Kentucky’s receivers are talented, there’s no denying that factor, but there’s also no denying they’ve been inconsistent. As the season progresses, passes are primarily being targeted to Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker, and Jeff Badet. Johnson is now drawing comparisons to Randall Cobb. For a Kentucky Wildcat, that is the highest compliment possible. The Wildcat’s leading pass catcher is Dorian Baker with 30 receptions. Jeff Badet has been effective in the vertical passing game. CJ Conrad’s pass catching resurfaced against Auburn, and it is a MUST moving forward for the Kentucky offense.
Defensive line-Mississippi State
DE Ryan Brown 6’6 266 Sr
DT Nick James 6’5 325 Jr
DT Chris Jones 6’6 308 Jr
DE AJ Jefferson 6’4 277 Jr
Miss. State has totaled 19 sacks contributed by 10 different players. By observation, the front four’s length is what is most impressive. AJ Jefferson’s 4 QB sacks and 10 tackles for loss lead the group. DE Ryan Brown has 6 tackles for loss and 2.5 QB sacks. DT Chris Jones is the highest recruiting prospect. Jones was named to 2014 preseason All-American team, but didn’t crack the Bulldog starting lineup until 2015.
Melvin Lewis is out for the remainder of the season. Mark Stoops and his team were distraught by Melvin’s injury. Lewis has overcome tremendous odds and is held in high regard both on and off the field. The Matt Elam era is now upon us. CJ Johnson’s ankle was not 100% against Auburn. He will need another outrageous performance to provide inside pass rush on Prescott. Farrington Huguenin is steady and reliable. Eventually, QB sacks will have to be produced.
Two of MSU’s top three tacklers are linebackers. Richie Brown’s 61 tackles, one interception, 3.5 QB sacks, and 5 tackles for loss leads the Dog D. Beniquez Brown’s 44 stops, 3 tackles for loss, and one interception are also impressive. The team’s fourth leading tackler is JT Gray with 38. The Miss State linebacker corps has the advantage of playing behind a larger and more disruptive defensive line.
UK’s Josh Forrest is the league’s fourth leading tackler averaging 9.1 stops per game. Ryan Flannigan’s production has slowed since his explosive return against Missouri. Jason Hatcher is returning to form as Jabari Johnson provides stability, although he can be a liability in the pass defense. Denzil Ware is still a work in progress and has elite potential.
MSU’s secondary is led by CB Will Redmond and his 2 interceptions. Initial NFL projections have him in the 1st or 2nd round category. Strong safety Brandon Bryant is the only underclassman in the Miss. State starting lineup, and even he has one interception. The Dogs’ secondary is solid, but not as elite as Florida or Missouri.
Auburn exposed Kentucky’s secondary in pre-determined one-on-one, first half mismatches. Given MSU’s size at receiver and TE, personnel adjustments are imminent. True freshman Chris Westry is special, and continues to improve. The real concern is at the other CB position. Expect to see more JD Harmon on Saturday. Mississippi native AJ Stamps needs to have his 2015 breakout game.
Special Teams-Mississippi State
KR Brandon Holloway ranks 4th in the SEC with 29.4 yards per kickoff return. Punter Logan Cooke is averaging 42.3 yards per attempt. Miss. State is 100% in FG’s with Westin Graves hitting 8-8 with ease. MSU has returned both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown. Given Kentucky’s kick/punt woes, improvements in both are non-negotiable.
Kicking game’s hidden yards wrecked UK’s chances in its loss to Auburn. Giving Dak Prescott and his big wide receivers advantageous field position could lead to a very long day. Coverage teams have done their part, but have been placed in precarious positions by less than desirable punting and kicking. That’s actually being kind. Going into Saturday, this is a major cause for concern.
What does this mean?
Kentucky will have its hands full on Saturday. Even after losing 15 starters from a year ago, Dan Mullen has built a sustainable roster, not just for a particular season. The proof is that 21/22 Bulldog starters are juniors and seniors. Dak Prescott has yet to throw an interception and is surrounded by explosive play makers. Defensively, the Cats will face a pass rushing machine with intent on influencing Patrick Towles in the pocket. After a demoralizing home loss, hitting the road may be just what this team needs.