The Kentucky Wildcats will finish off a stretch of five home games in six weeks when they host the LSU Tigers on Saturday night in Lexington. They enter with a perfect 5-0 record (3-0 SEC) on the strength of four straight wins by seven or fewer points, including last week's thrilling 20-13 win over then-No. 10 Florida. Trailing 10-7 at halftime, the Wildcats scored 13 of the second-half's 16 points and buckled down in the final minutes to keep the Gators out of the end zone en route to the come-from-behind upset win.
The Tigers (3-2, 1-1) have had a mixed bag of results to begin the 2021 campaign, boosted by three consecutive wins over McNeese, Central Michigan, and Mississippi State. Those wins have been bookended, however, by a season-opening loss at UCLA and a five-point home loss against the Tigers to the east when Auburn pulled out a five-point win in Death Valley last week. The loss to Auburn marked the opening of six straight games against ranked SEC opponents for LSU as Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama, and Arkansas await after LSU's matchup with Kentucky.
Speaking of mixed bags, such is the pattern of these two programs' meetings through the years. Kentucky came away with shutout wins in its first two meetings against LSU in 1949 and 1950, and after a one-year hiatus in 1951 the Tigers and Wildcats squared off every year from 1952 to 2002, with the Tigers winning 13 straight between 1961 and 1973 and 22 of 26 from 1957-82. But these two programs have met just four times since LSU's 33-30 win in Lexington in 2002, the Tigers claiming three of these matchups (2006, '11, '14) with the Wildcats' victory coming in 2007. So it's been a while since Kentucky got the better of LSU.
LSU at No. 16 Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -3
When LSU Has the Ball
The Tigers enter as one of just four SEC teams with 300 or more passing yards per game. Their 303.2 yards per game through the air trails only Mississippi State, Missouri, and Ole Miss among SEC foes and ranks 19th nationally. But the aerial attack has really been the lone source of offense for the Tigers entering the midpoint of the season. LSU's 70.6 yards rushing per game stands as the second-worst mark in the conference and the third-worst in the FBS, ahead only of Mississippi State's 56.2 and Bowling Green's 47.2.
Head coach Ed Orgeron has emphasized the need for his team to recommit to running the ball, and with good reason: the Tigers have run for 100 yards just once in five games and have been held under 50 in both of their two losses. Corey Kiner has been the primary contributor for LSU on the ground, notching the Tigers' only two rushing touchdowns and just 41.5 yards per game thus far. On the topic of touchdowns, though, Kayshon Boutte is tied for the FBS lead with nine receiving scores, while his 436 receiving yards through five games trails only the 467 collected by Wan'Dale Robinson — who will be on the opposite sideline on Saturday when the Tigers take the field in Lexington.
Those struggles when running the ball will be tough to escape on Saturday night, as Kentucky enters with a top-25 mark nationally in rushing yards allowed and the 10th-fewest total yards allowed in the FBS. The Wildcats have also kept three of their five opponents to just one touchdown apiece and have surrendered just 16.8 points per game thus far, even with Missouri and Chattanooga scoring 28 and 23, respectively.
When Kentucky Has the Ball
The Wildcats' offense has been essentially the polar opposite of the Tigers' through the first five weeks of 2021, as Kentucky has relied on a ground game that has run for 191 yards per game while passing for just over 208 yards per contest. Only five Wildcats aside from Robinson — who averages more than 16.1 yards per reception this season — have caught a pass from quarterback Will Levis over the last two weeks, as Robinson has tallied 65 yards in each of the last two games while the other five have combined for just 11 catches and 59 receiving yards in that span.
The rushing attack has more than picked up the slack, with Chris Rodriguez Jr. leading the charge in a big way. The Wildcats have run the ball more than 35 times per game this season, paced by Rodriguez's SEC-best 124.2 yards per game on the ground, which also stands as the sixth-best mark in the FBS. Rodriguez picked up right where he left off against Florida, tallying 99 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, after a 26-carry, 144-yard performance in the win at South Carolina one week earlier.
Kentucky's focus on running the ball will hardly draw any complaints from LSU, who enters Week 6 allowing just 119 yards rushing per game — a top-40 mark nationally — while surrendering an SEC-worst 248 yards per game through the air. One key strength for the Tigers, though, is their ability to get after the quarterback and create havoc in the backfield. LSU has notched 8.8 tackles for loss per game and an SEC-high four sacks per game, which rank fourth and third, respectively, in the FBS. Keep an eye on BJ Ojulari and Maason Smith, who have combined for 7.5 sacks thus far, while Damone Clark leads the SEC and is third in the FBS with 11 tackles per game.
On paper, the Wildcats clearly possess the upper hand and are riding much more positive momentum than the Tigers. But it's critical for Kentucky to avoid taking the foot off the pedal and maintain its focus, as LSU will undoubtedly look to rebound from its loss last week and right the ship heading into the second half of its season.
Prediction: Kentucky 27, LSU 23
Podcast: Week 6 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.