Saturday night at Kroger Field will find a pair of SEC East foes seeking to bounce back from a divisional loss as Missouri visits Kentucky in Lexington. Kentucky (3-4, 1-4 SEC) has to be thrilled to be back at home, where it is 3-1 thus far with its only loss coming by eight points to now-No. 7 Florida. Missouri (5-2, 2-1) meanwhile, is winless in its only two road games, though a perfect 5-0 record in Columbia has kept the Tigers within shouting distance of the top of the division.
The Tigers find themselves in somewhat unfamiliar territory after their 21-14 loss at Vanderbilt last weekend, with the loss marking their first since a season-opening defeat at Wyoming on Aug. 31. Kelly Bryant only completed 50 percent (13-of-26) of his passes for 140 yards and a touchdown, but he also led the team in rushing with 72 yards on 16 carries. Tyler Badie and Larry Rountree III barely combined to eclipse that mark, totaling 76 yards between them on 22 combined carries. That offensive output is far more than Kentucky mustered in its 21-0 loss at No. 10 Georgia, as the Bulldogs held the Wildcats to just 180 total yards. Lynn Bowden Jr. accounted for 116 of those, as the receiver-turned-quarterback completed just two of his 15 passes for 17 yards while rushing for 99 more.
Saturday's meeting will be the 10th all-time between the Tigers and Wildcats, a series that began in 1965 but was only played twice until the 2012 season when the Tigers moved to the SEC. Missouri won the first three head-to-head matchups as conference foes, but Kentucky has flipped the script by taking the four most recent matchups, including last season's 15-14 nailbiter in Columbia.
Missouri at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Missouri -10.5
When Missouri Has the Ball
Saturday's passing performance was an aberration for Kelly Bryant, who fell 90 yards short of the 230.4 yards passing he had averaged in each of the Tigers' five straight wins before last week. Even in the loss to Wyoming, Bryant was 31-of-48 for 423 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the six-point loss. On the receiving side, seven Tigers have already reached double-digit receptions, with Johnathon Johnson and Jonathan Nance sharing not just similarly spelled first names, but the team lead in receiving yards (284) as well. For Bryant and his pass catchers, expect a bounce-back game against a Kentucky pass defense that has been tough against the pass but has yet to hold a team under 21 points this season.
While Larry Rountree III has operated as the lead back for the Tigers — averaging 5.1 yards per attempt on 115 carries with eight touchdowns — he's certainly had help in what's been a balanced Missouri ground game. Tyler Badie has added 311 yards on the ground — with 20 receptions for 215 yards and two touchdowns — while Dawson Downing has been efficient in limited work, posting 6.6 yards per carry on just 28 total attempts.
Kentucky's defense brings a very vivid representation of the "bend, don’t break" philosophy. The Wildcats sport a top-50 scoring defense that allows just 23.3 points per game, but does so while allowing 365 total yards per game. The unit has collected only nine takeaways — five interceptions, four fumbles — but has still managed to do a solid job of keeping opponents off the scoreboard despite the offense's struggles.
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Mark Stoops' group has struggled to put points on the board this season, averaging just 20.1 points per game to rank 114th out of 130 FBS teams. Injuries certainly have not helped the cause, as initial starting quarterback Terry Wilson is likely done for the season with a knee injury. Additionally, backup Sawyer Smith also has missed the last two games with shoulder and wrist issues and is questionable for Saturday. Lynn Bowden Jr. is far from a threat through the air, as the receiver-turned-quarterback relies on his legs now that he's made the move behind center.
Outside of Bowden, the Wildcats' running game struggled on Saturday against Georgia's stout defense, as Asim Rose notched just 37 yards on nine carries. The Bowden-Rose pair was dominant and crucial in helping UK narrowly escape at home against Arkansas two weeks ago, as the two combined for 256 yards on 40 attempts (6.4 ypc) and two touchdowns (both by Bowden). That emphasis on the run has drastically sliced the receiving production, as Bowden still leads the team with 348 yards. Behind him, Ahmad Wagner, Josh Ali and Justin Rigg have amassed just 448 yards three touchdowns between them on 35 total receptions.
Missouri's defense enters Saturday night ranked 14th in the FBS at 16.6 points per game allowed. Despite the statistical success, the Tigers have been somewhat inconsistent as Wyoming, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt combined to post 85 points on Mizzou (1-2 in those games) vs. a total of 31 in the other four games. Kentucky's recent offensive struggles don't bode well and should allow Missouri to get back to its stingy ways on defense.
While both Missouri and Kentucky are coming off divisional losses, Missouri has been playing like the far superior team in 2019. If it can put aside its road woes that have led to two losses, it should have no problem handling an offensively limited Kentucky team on Saturday night.
Prediction: Missouri 34, Kentucky 18
— 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.