JOE COX: Will Underdog Wildcats Surprise Bulldogs in Starkville Saturday?
Kentucky’s bye week came at a welcome time, as the Wildcats are rested, much more healthy, and ready to chase a potentially historic end to their 2017 season. UK is 5-1 at the season’s mid-point, but now must travel to Starkville, Miss., to take on Mississippi State, and dual-threat QB Nick Fitzgerald. The Wildcats won last season on a last-second Austin MacGinnis field goal, but will face the Bulldogs on the road. Kentucky is a nearly two-touchdown underdog, but can the Wildcats beat the odds?
Who They Are
State’s junior QB Nick Fitzgerald is one of the most dynamic players in the SEC, and his 2017 season has been according to form. In six games, Fitzgerald has passed for 1,024 yards and ten touchdowns, and has rushed for another 446 yards and seven scores on the ground. The last State running back to top 1,000 yards rushing was Josh Robinson in 2014, but junior Aeris Williams has 523 yards this year. State lost top receiver Fred Ross, and has struggled to replace him.
The Bulldogs average 261.7 yards per game on the ground, third best in the conference, and have 5.7 yards per carry. But they have struggled with consistency in the passing game, although Fitzgerald has been sacked just three times in six games.
Defensively, State is led in tackles by linebackers Dez Harris and J.T. Grey. Probably their best defender is lineman Jeffery Simmons, who is strong and fast enough to be third on the team in tackles, lead the team in sacks with 3.5, block two kicks, and return a fumble 90 yards for a touchdown. State has only two interceptions all season.
State is solid, but unexceptional on special teams. Kicker Jace Christmann began the year as the back-up, but after the starter missed two extra points and a pair of field goals, Christmann is perfect on the season, although his longest kick is 45 yards.
Where Kentucky Is
For the first time in a long time, UK is somewhat healthy. Star linebacker Jordan Jones is expected back, which is his first action in over a month. The banged up secondary and offensive line should be much closer to full strength. Apparently, the center spot will be manned by Nick Haynes or Drake Jackson, as Bunchy Stalling’s ton of errant snaps have finally consigned him to guard.
Furthermore, UK’s coaching staff has used the off week to self-scout and plan what could be a masterful game against State. Kentucky has to do a better job of involving impact players like WR Lynn Bowden and TE C.J. Conrad.
Kentucky is apparently not expected to play very well, but given UK’s strength in slowing opposing running games, State plays right into the Wildcats’ hands. Offensively, can Eddie Gran come up with enough trickery to keep Kentucky moving?
Vegas would tell you no. But Vegas apparently didn’t remember that last year, Gran threw the kitchen sink at the Bulldogs, and had just enough to come back with a win. State hasn’t played a close game this season, and if Kentucky can force one, it might be more to the Wildcats’ liking than the Bulldogs.’
Historically, this is the kind of opportunity that Kentucky has squandered. But historically, UK isn’t 5-1 or on the cusp of the top 25 at this point in the season. Before the season, I didn’t like this matchup for Kentucky. But these Wildcats play well on the road, are rested and ready, and present an oddly solid match-up. For some reason, I’ve got a funny feeling that this is a positive surprise.
UK 24, Mississippi State 21.
Other SEC Predictions
Much of the SEC is resting this week (five times). But here’s my two cents on the ones in action:
Missouri 52, Idaho 14
Alabama 52, Tennessee 0
LSU 38, Ole Miss 17
Auburn 45, Arkansas 14
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.