Two undefeated SEC teams will do battle in Oxford, Mississippi, on Saturday afternoon. The No. 7 Kentucky Wildcats will travel to Vaught Hemingway Stadium to take on the 14th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels.
Kentucky (4-0, 1-0 SEC) defeated Northern Illinois last weekend but looked sluggish in the process. Entering the game as 26.5-point favorites, it was tied 14-14 at halftime before the Wildcats scored 17 straight points. Still, the harder-than-expected 31-23 victory wasn't secured until UK picked up one final first down with less than a minute left after NIU made it a one-score game.
Ole Miss (4-0, 0-0) also had a tough time wrapping up its non-conference slate, holding on to defeat Tulsa 35-27. The Rebels turned an early 14-7 deficit at home into a 35-17 lead at halftime only to watch the Golden Hurricane outscore them 10-0 over the final two quarters. Ole Miss barely outgained Tulsa (462-457) but did what was necessary to get the win.
This will be the first time since 1958 that both Kentucky and Ole Miss will be ranked when they play. The Rebels lead the head-to-head series 29-14-1 and have won the last two meetings.
No. 7 Kentucky at No. 14 Ole Miss
When Kentucky Has the Ball
What has been remarkable about Kentucky is it's a top-10 team without any kind of a running game. That will likely change on Saturday.
The Wildcats will welcome back running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., who was suspended for the first four games of the season after pleading guilty to a DUI charge in July.
In 2021, Rodriguez was second in the SEC with 1,379 rushing yards, to go along with nine touchdowns. Two years ago against Ole Miss, Rodriguez finished with 133 yards and two scores.
"[Rodriguez] will help in a lot of ways," head coach Mike Stoops said earlier this week. "We all know he's a very good football player in a lot of ways and we'll be excited to get him back."
In Rodriguez's absence, quarterback Will Levis has been carrying the load. The former Penn State transfer is fourth in the conference with 1,185 passing yards and already has three 300-yard performances. He has 10 touchdown passes and four interceptions while completing 67.5 percent of his attempts.
Ole Miss' defense has certainly done its part in the early going. The Rebels have surrendered a total of four touchdowns (10.0 ppg) and are holding teams to 3.2 yards per carry with more interceptions (four) than touchdown passes allowed (three). Competition (Troy, Central Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Tulsa) certainly needs to be taken into consideration but it's a welcome sight from a defense that gave up 25 points and more than 420 yards per game last season.
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
Unlike Kentucky, the Rebels have had no trouble gaining ground. Ole Miss leads the SEC and is fourth nationally in rushing offense at 280.8 yards per game and has scored 15 times on the ground.
True freshman Quinshon Judkins is the team's leading rusher with 429 yards and five scores. He was named SEC co-Freshman of the Week after going for 140 yards and two scores against Tulsa. But Judkins has help in the backfield. Zach Evans, the highly regarded transfer from TCU, has gained 365 yards on the ground with four touchdowns. Both are averaging better than six yards per carry.
Quarterback Jaxson Dart, another transfer (USC), also is contributing to the running game (6.9 ypc), but his impact as a passer has been more sporadic. He's completing 62.2 percent of his attempts but has five touchdowns compared to two interceptions and is only averaging 174.3 passing yards per game.
Dart will have to make some plays with his arm because Kentucky's defense will be keyed in on stopping the run. The Wildcats are yielding 3.7 yards per carry and have surrendered a total of three rushing touchdowns in four games.
Levis will be the best quarterback on the field during Saturday’s game. That alone will keep Kentucky in the game throughout. However, the Wildcats' offensive line is a huge concern as Northern Illinois was able to register five sacks. With better athletes on the defensive line, look for Ole Miss to try to create a lot of pressure on Levis.
Getting Rodriguez back for Kentucky is huge, however, the Rebels' defense has been stingier than the Wildcats', giving up 4.2 yards per play (vs. 4.7). In a game like this, it doesn't take much of an advantage, however slight, to tip the scales.
Prediction: Ole Miss 34, Kentucky 31
Podcast: Week 5 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders, and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
*Price as of publication.