JOE COX: One Statement Game Down, Kentucky Can Deliver Another on Saturday
Welcome to life as the Kentucky Wildcats. You beat the team that has knocked you back for 31 consecutive seasons, only to find that suddenly that team is now devalued. Kentucky is 3-0, but the logic runs that the Wildcats haven’t played anybody. Well, that’s all about to change. No. 14 Mississippi State invades Kroger Field Saturday night in a game that gives Kentucky a chance to ultimately lay waste to the idea that the upset of Florida two weeks ago was any type of a fluke.
Kentucky figures to have a fight to gain that upper level of respect. State is also 3-0, but much like Kentucky, had its best win (at Kansas State) somewhat devalued by a down season from the team that it knocked off. Still, the Bulldogs haven’t just won, they have dominated. State leads the SEC in rushing at 311 yards per game (Kentucky is third at 282 yards per game). They have put up 587 yards per game and allowed just 259 yards per game. They are outscoring opponents by an average margin of 50-9.
State is a 9.5-point favorite heading into kickoff. But of course, any upset worth claiming won’t be easy.
Meet Mississippi State
The biggest immediate weapon State owns is QB Nick Fitzgerald, who has rushed for over 100 yards in each of State’s last two meetings of Kentucky. In two games this season, Fitzgerald has rushed for 266 yards and four touchdowns. State’s passing game is still a work in progress, as the Bulldogs are completing just 49 percent of their passes, but they average a whopping 19.7 yards per catch when they connect.
Defensively, State has racked up 33 tackles for loss, including ten sacks, in their first three games. Safety Johnathan Abram leads the team in tackles with 20 stops and has an interception to his credit. Up front, linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat (who was born in Richmond, Ky) each have five and a half tackles for loss, with Sweat posting three sacks.
Perhaps the stat that best illustrates State’s dominance this season is that they are 22 for 36 on third down attempts, but have held opponents to 10 for 43 in those situations.
Where Kentucky Stands
The Wildcats took care of business against Murray State in last week’s 48-10 thumping. The Wildcats come into this game about as healthy as possible, and with QB Terry Wilson and WR Lynn Bowden displaying some promising chemistry in last week’s game. Defensively, Kentucky’s linebackers have played well, and they will be pivotal on Saturday. Given Fitzgerald’s running skills, the backers can’t misread the State QB. They have to be able to stay at home and keep him from running wild, but also can’t fall asleep on him burning the secondary with some well-thrown passes.
One pivotal advantage Kentucky may hold is in special teams. Kicker Miles Butler and punter Max Duffy have been superb and the Bulldogs have struggled in both areas.
Kentucky will be motivated by a large home crowd and should give the Bulldogs all the can handle. The difference in this game down the stretch is that State is just bigger and stronger in the trenches. Kentucky’s offensive line has been good, but it’ll take their 'A' game to keep Simmons and Sweat out of the backfield. Defensively, Kentucky must stay strong against a dominant MSU running game.
The guess here is that while Kentucky will come to play, State has just a little more size and depth and that lets them win out in the end.
Mississippi State 34, Kentucky 27
Other SEC Predictions
Ole Miss 59, Kent State 21
Georgia 48, Missouri 14
Alabama 49, Texas A&M 24
South Carolina 24, Vanderbilt 21
LSU 38, Louisiana Tech 13
Florida 31, Tennessee 17
Auburn 59, Arkansas 10
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written seven books, with the eighth to come in 2019. His most recent, "The Immaculate Inning," was released in February 2018 and can be ordered 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.