Don’t look now, Kentucky fans, but the Wildcats are one win away from their best start in a decade. Kentucky, which many at the beginning of the season expected to be a player in the SEC East, hasn’t disappointed as it enters Saturday’s showdown with Mississippi State at 5-1 and in sole possession of second place in its division at 2-1.
Mississippi State is coming off of a 35-10 win against beleaguered BYU. While the Bulldogs are a respectable 4-2 and 1-2 in conference play, most of the momentum generated from their 37-7 win over LSU went by the wayside following consecutive losses to Auburn and Georgia.
Kentucky defeated Mississippi State 40-38 in Lexington last year to even the all-time series at 22, but the Wildcats haven’t won in Starkville since 2008. Home-field advantage has benefited the Bulldogs as they’ve gone 12-6 against Kentucky at Davis Wade Stadium. This year’s contest falls on Mississippi State’s Homecoming, and the Bulldogs under head coach Dan Mullen have gone 7-1 both in Homecoming games and against Kentucky.
Kentucky at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 21 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Mississippi State -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Mississippi State’s rushing offense vs. Kentucky’s rush defense
Kentucky has done a really good job against the run thus far, ranking third in the SEC and 10th nationally (97.2 ypg). This will be another good test for the Wildcats with Mississippi State boasting one of the most productive rushing attacks in both the SEC (third) and FBS as a whole (14th) at 261.7 yards per game.
Kentucky really put the clamps down on Eastern Michigan (13 rushing yards) and South Carolina (54), but Florida put up 186 rushing yards against the Wildcats and last time out, Missouri racked up 213 yards on 33 carries (6.4 ypc).
The Bulldogs have produced at least 177 rushing yards in every game, including 306 on 53 carries (5.8) last week against BYU. Running back Aeris Williams leads the way with 523 rushing yards, but quarterback Nick Fitzgerald isn’t too far behind with 446 and a team-high seven touchdowns on the ground. Both Williams (5.4) and Fitzgerald (6.5) are averaging better than five yards per carry.
2. Mississippi State DT Jeffery Simmons
The top player in the state of Mississippi coming out of high school, Simmons was in the same 2016 class as Ole Miss standout wide receiver A.J. Brown. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Simmons has lived up to the hype to this point.
Simmons has already been named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week twice this season. A defensive tackle, Simmons has stuffed the stat sheet with 31 tackles, four tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns. Simmons has made his presence known on special teams as well with two blocked kicks, the most of any player in the country. He’s no stranger to playing well against Kentucky either, as he was responsible for a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in last season’s meeting.
3. Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis
In a series that has been as around as this one has yet is dead even record-wise, it only makes sense to assume that the majority of the games have been close. That’s where a consistent kicker like MacGinnis comes in as his leg could be the between a win and a loss. That was the case last year when he booted a game-winning, 51-yard field goal to give the Wildcats a 40-38 victory over Mississippi State.
This season, MacGinnis has 13 made field goals on 18 attempts, good for third in the SEC and tied for seventh in the FBS. His is career scoring leader at Kentucky with 314 points and he’s also tops in made field goals (63). The Wildcats could have an edge if it’s a close game entering the fourth quarter and they are able to move the ball deep enough to give MacGinnis a shot within his range.
Kentucky is coming off of a bye and needs just one more to become bowl eligible. If not for a fourth-quarter collapse at home against Florida, the Wildcats would be undefeated. However, there’s still plenty of work left to be done and Kentucky would like nothing more than to get that all-important sixth win on Saturday as it enters the toughest portion of its schedule.
Mississippi State was on top of the world after handily beating LSU 37-7 for its victory in Starkville over the Tigers since 1999. But that games feels like it was months ago, as the Bulldogs dropped consecutive games in ugly fashion at Georgia and at Auburn before righting the ship last week at home against BYU. Head coach Dan Mullen has lost to Kentucky just once during his Bulldogs tenure, but this isn’t a typical Wildcats team that’s coming into Davis Wade Stadium.
Prediction: Kentucky 27, Mississippi State 24
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.