FACTS & STATS: Site: Davis Wade Stadium (55,082) -- Starkville, Mississippi. Television: ESPN. Home Record: UK 1-3, MSU 3-1. Away Record: UK 0-1, MSU 0-2. Neutral Record: UK 0-1, MSU 0-0. Conference Record: UK 0-3, MSU 0-2. Series Record: Kentucky leads, 21-19.
GAME NOTES: Both the Kentucky Wildcats and the Mississippi State Bulldogs take aim at their first SEC win of the season, as the two squads meet at Davis Wade Stadium on Thursday night.
Mark Stoops' inaugural campaign as Kentucky's head coach has not gotten off to a great start, as the team has lost five of its first six contests. The Wildcats, who had an open date last weekend, have dropped four in a row since beating Miami-Ohio on Sept. 7, with their latest matchup being their most lopsided loss yet, as they fell at home to No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 12, 48-7.
Mississippi State has been a Jekyll and Hyde squad this season, alternating losses with wins in every game thus far on its way to a 3-3 record. The Bulldogs have played much better in Starkville, however, winning three of four bouts there, including a 21-20 win over Bowling Green in their most recent game, also on Oct. 12.
Kentucky leads the all-time series with Mississippi State, 21-19, but the Bulldogs have had the upper hand of late with four straight wins. No team has ever won five in a row during the course of the series.
Kentucky's offense has struggled to get much of anything going this season. In addition to scoring an SEC-low 20.3 ppg, it racks up just 352.3 ypg and converts third downs at a meager 26 percent rate.
A big reason for the Wildcats' woes has been due to a lack of identity under center. Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith have split snaps, but while Whitlow has been the more productive of the two (.658 completion percentage, 499 yards, three TDs, one INT, 238 rushing yards, three TDs), he is listed as doubtful for this contest with an ankle injury. Smith has completed just 55.4 percent of his passes for 710 yards with five touchdowns and one pick, and he is not a threat to run at all (-43 rushing yards).
The rushing attack has been solid, racking up more than 150 yards per game, but losing Whitlow certainly won't help matters. Jojo Kemp (260 yards) and Raymond Sanders (255 yards, two TDs) earn an even split in the backfield.
Javess Blue has made the most of his questionable quarterback situation by catching 24 balls for 319 yards and two scores. Ryan Timmons (20 receptions, 209 yards, TD) is also actively involved.
Defensively, Kentucky has gotten better with Stoops' newly-implemented scheme, improving from 31.0 ppg allowed in 2012 to 29.3 ppg here in 2013, but the unit still ranks 10th in the league in scoring defense and has intercepted only one pass.
Avery Williamson (64 tackles, two fumble recoveries) is one of the SEC's top linebackers, while Za'Darius Smith (4.5 sacks) and Alvin Dupree (3.0 sacks) provide a solid pass-rush, but the Wildcats could be without Dupree as he recovers from a pectoral injury.
As for Mississippi State, it has performed well on offense this year, scoring 30.5 ppg, but in an SEC loaded with potent attacks, that's good enough for just ninth place.
The Bulldogs have shifted to a two-quarterback system in recent weeks. Dak Prescott had been the starter when Tyler Russell missed time early in the season, and he has retained a large role thanks to his rushing ability. He has thrown for 890 yards, rushed for 457 yards and accounted for 11 touchdowns. Russell is the much more efficient passer, completing 70.7 percent of his throws for 381 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
No matter who has lined up under center, Jameon Lewis is the unrivaled top target in the passing game, as he leads the team in catches (23), yards (393) and touchdowns (three). No other player averages more than 30 receiving yards per contest.
Although Prescott may be the top rushing threat, LaDarius Perkins has been effective as well at tailback with 273 yards and a score on 55 carries.
Mississippi State's strong defense is the biggest reason it's still hovering at the .500 mark for the season. The Bulldogs rank 41st in the nation in scoring defense (23.0 ppg), and 35th in total defense (364.5 ypg).
Benardrick McKinney leads the way with 36 tackles, while Nickoe Whitley is a difference-maker in the secondary with three interceptions.
Mississippi State won't be a factor in the SEC come season's end, but it should get better as the year goes along now that a number of key injuries have passed. Kentucky is on its way back to respectability under Stoops, but it is still not ready to win a conference road game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Mississippi State 31, Kentucky 20
Thursday, October 24, 7:30 p.m. (et)