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Mississippi State vs. Kentucky Prediction: Surging Bulldogs Take on the Wounded Wildcats

Top 25 clash between SEC crossover rivals to take place in Lexington.

The No. 22-ranked Kentucky Wildcats are set to host the No. 16-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday night in Lexington for an enticing Top 25 matchup between SEC crossover rivals.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 7

Kentucky will look to rebound after suffering back-to-back conference losses against Ole Miss and South Carolina over the last two weeks. Following the heartbreaking 22-19 loss to the Rebels on the road, the Wildcats struggled mightily without star quarterback Will Levis in a 24-14 home loss to the Gamecocks last Saturday night. Freshman quarterback Kaiya Sheron filled in for the injured Levis, throwing for 178 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his debut. But he also threw an interception and was sacked six times as the running game didn't offer much support (3.4 ypc). Now 4-2 overall (1-2 SEC), Mark Stoops' Wildcats will have an opportunity to get their season back on track with a win over a surging Mississippi State squad.

The Bulldogs enter this game riding a wave of momentum after coming away with its third consecutive victory, dispatching Arkansas 40-17 at home last Saturday. Mississippi State racked up 568 yards of total offense, led by quarterback Will Rogers, who threw for 395 yards and three touchdowns to earn SEC Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors. In the process, Rogers also broke Aaron Murray's SEC career completions record. It was a banner day for the run game against the Razorbacks as well, compiling 173 yards and three touchdowns — the most rushing yards ever in the Mike Leach era. Running back Dillon Johnson led that effort to become the first 100-yard rusher under Leach at Mississippi State. The 5-1 (2-1 SEC) Bulldogs hope to keep the momentum rolling on Saturday night with their first win at Kroger Field since 2014.

Saturday night's contest will mark the 50th meeting between the two schools. Mississippi State holds a razor-thin 25-24 lead in the series. The Wildcats and Bulldogs have split the last six meetings in the series, with the home team coming away victorious in each of those matchups. Mississippi State won 31-17 last season in Starkville.

No. 16 Mississippi State at No. 22 Kentucky

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Mississippi State -4
Tickets: As low as $43 on SITickets.com*

When Mississippi State Has the Ball

Quarterback Will Rogers continues to thrive in Mike Leach's Air Raid attack, an offense that is averaging 38.5 points and 461.3 yards per game. Rogers leads the nation in passing yards (2,110), while his 22 touchdown passes rank second. His 71.6 percent completion rate is tops in the SEC. Rogers loves to spread the ball around, as the Bulldogs boast six different pass catchers with at least 20 receptions through six games. Wide receiver Caleb Ducking leads the team in both receptions (28) and touchdown catches (7), while Rara Thomas is tops in receiving yards (368). Fellow wideouts Rufus Harvey (27 rec., 271 yds., 2 TDs) and Lideatrick Griffin (20, 239, TD) have been significant contributors in the passing game as well. Griffin also stars in the return game with an impressive 31.1-yard average on kickoffs.

While the run game is usually an afterthought in Leach's pass-happy offense, "The Pirate" has turned more to the ground attack this season in an effort to be slightly more balanced and help open up the passing game. Running backs Dillon Johnson (6.0 ypc) and Jo'quavious "Woody" Marks (5 rushing TDs) have been up to the challenge, while also being an integral part of the passing game.

The Mississippi State offense will be tested against a solid Kentucky defense that is giving up 307.2 yards and 16.3 points per game, both of which rank in the top 20 nationally. The Wildcats are 16th in the country against the pass, allowing just 174.2 yards per game. They also have allowed only three touchdown passes while recording five interceptions. Defensive back Carrington Valentine is currently tied for the SEC lead in pass breakups with seven.

The concern is that Kentucky has yet to face a passing offense as potent as Mississippi State's, although the Wildcats have already had their fill of Rogers. Last season, he picked UK apart for 344 yards and a touchdown while misfiring on just three attempts (36-for-39) in the Bulldogs' 31-17 victory. A pass rush that has generated only nine sacks in six games may not offer much help in slowing down Rogers, especially if the ground game continues to be effective when called upon. Kentucky has missed linebacker Jacquez Jones' presence and production on the field while he's been sidelined by a foot injury.

When Kentucky Has the Ball

The Kentucky offense continues to be a work in progress, averaging an underwhelming 356.3 yards and 26.3 points per game under new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. The good news is that the Wildcats are expected to have star quarterback Will Levis (foot) back after sitting out last week's game against South Carolina. Levis is the driving force behind the Kentucky offense. A projected first-round 2023 NFL Draft pick by some analysts, Levis has thrown for 1,405 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 68.8 percent of his passes. He also has two scores on the ground.

Even if he plays, Levis probably won't be at 100 percent on Saturday, and the same can be said for his two favorite targets as well. Leading wide receiver Tayvion Robinson (25 rec., 392 yds., 3 TDs) is questionable with an undisclosed injury, while No. 2 receiver Dane Key (19, 291, 3) is listed as probable despite reports that he is sporting a cast on his wrist. That leaves freshman standout Barion Brown (17, 288, 2) as Levis' only fully healthy option among his starting wideouts. The other concern for the Wildcats' offense is a line that has already surrendered 25 sacks. That's the most in the SEC and the third-most sacks allowed by an FBS team.

The offensive line's poor performance also has impacted Kentucky's running game, which is averaging 92.5 yards per game and has produced just four rushing touchdowns. To put this in perspective, Mississippi State is gaining more yards on the ground per game (106.7) despite running the ball 56 fewer times than the Wildcats (152 attempts vs. 208) to this point. The return of running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. has helped bolster Kentucky's rushing attack, but he's run for less than 200 yards with one touchdown in his first two games. Meanwhile, leading rusher Kavosiey Smoke (53 att., 269 yds. TD), has been dealing with a concussion and his status for Saturday is unknown.

Defensively, Mississippi State is allowing 21 points and 358 yards per game. Teams have had more success throwing the ball against the Bulldogs (219.5 ypg), which could bode well for Levis. But MSU is tied for the SEC lead with eight interceptions, led by standout cornerback Emmanuel Forbes' four to go along with 10 passes defended. He leads the conference and is among the top players in FBS in both categories.

Final Analysis

Home-field advantage looms large for Kentucky, with the home team winning each of the last six meetings in this series. Levis also is expected to be back this week, which should provide the offense with a nice boost. However, he may be limited to some degree, and that also goes for two of his top pass catchers. Throw in a leaky offensive line and a run game that has yet to gain much traction, and the Wildcats' chances for a big night on offense appear bleak.

On the other side of the football, Kentucky will have its hands full against a red-hot Rogers and a much-improved Mississippi State ground attack. Not to mention the fact that Mississippi State is plus-four in turnover margin, while the Wildcats are minus-three. Momentum also favors the Bulldogs, who should manage to sneak out of Kroger Field with the win.

Prediction: Mississippi State 27, Kentucky 21

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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.

*Price as of publication.