In some ways, Kentucky’s past will meet Kentucky’s present on Saturday night at Kroger Field. Kentucky’s past will be represented by Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, who was the offensive coordinator for Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense in 1997 and 1998 when it set numerous SEC and even NCAA records in Lexington. Of course, UK’s present in a ground-and-pound rushing attack which leads the SEC in rushing yardage by nearly 100 yards per game right now. At 0-2, the Wildcats badly need a win, but Leach and State are daunting foes.
Kentucky won the last two times Mississippi State came to Kroger Field—once over Dan Mullen in 2016 and then over Joe Moorhead in 2018. But the hiring of Leach represented a change of direction for MSU. Leach’s pass-happy offense was expected to add some intrigue and scoring punch to the SEC West, and indeed, it took exactly one game for that to come true, as State beat defending champion LSU 44-34 in their season opener behind an SEC record 623 passing yards from transfer QB K.J. Costello.
Week Two was not as kind to the Bulldogs, as they were upset at home by an Arkansas squad winning its first SEC game since 2017. Costello threw 59 passes, but for a much more pedestrian 313 yards, with three of them getting intercepted. So goes life with the Air Raid, where few games are out of reach, but few also are safely stowed away without a clock-eating ground game.
But State is a legitimate threat, and they will fire the ball all over the field. The question is can Kentucky stop them.
The Wildcats are last in FBS football in pass defense efficiency. If you missed last week’s 42-41 overtime loss to Ole Miss, that fact (and a missed extra point) pretty much brings you up to date. Rebel QB Matt Corral threw only five incomplete passes all day, en route to 320 passing yards and four touchdowns. In two weeks of SEC football, Kentucky has not forced a single turnover, and the secondary has turned each game into a length chunk of opposing QBs’ highlight reels.
The good news for Kentucky is that the ground game has been tough, even with sophomore running back Kavosiey Smoke sidelined with a rib injury. Chris Rodriguez, Terry Wilson, and A.J. Rose each topped 100 yards against Ole Miss. Wilson was efficient at quarterback, although he continues to be at his best when Kentucky runs substantially more than they pass.
The Wildcats should be able to score on State, particularly if they run well on first down and keep Terry Wilson in 2nd and 3rd down situations that are short or manageable. The biggest question is can the suddenly beleaguered secondary at least slow State. If Kentucky wants to avoid falling to 0-3, they have to. The guess is the Cats find a way, likely aided by a drizzling rain throughout Saturday’s proceedings.
UK 38, Mississippi State 35
Other SEC Predictions
Florida 38, Texas A&M 28
LSU 31, Missouri 21
South Carolina 35, Vanderbilt 7
Georgia 31, Tennessee 10
Auburn 28, Arkansas 20
Alabama 55, Ole Miss 17
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County and has written or co-written nine books. His most recent, "A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Changed," was released in February 2019 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 email@example.com.