The Missouri Tigers (1-3, 0-2 SEC) will make their first road trip of the season, paying a visit to Kroger Field on Saturday to face the Kentucky Wildcats (4-1, 1-1). Following an explosive offensive performance in a season opening win against FCS opponent Missouri State, things have been all downhill for a Missouri team that has now lost three consecutive games in blowout fashion. The good news is that the well-rested Tigers have a golden opportunity to hit the reset button after last week’s open date.
Meanwhile Kentucky continues to narrowly escape the jaws of defeat from week to week, surviving yet another close call in a 24-20 home win over Eastern Michigan last week. However, the Wildcats couldn't escape against Florida two weeks ago, blowing a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead that culminated in a 28-27 loss, providing the only blemish on UK's record thus far.
This will be the eighth meeting between Missouri and Kentucky. The Wildcats hold a slight 4-3 edge and have won the past two matchups between these SEC East foes, including a 35-21 victory over the Tigers in Columbia last season.
Missouri at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Benny Snell Jr.
The Wildcats piled up 377 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in last season’s 35-21 road victory over Missouri. Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. was responsible for 182 of those yards and two of the scores. While Snell’s yards per carry has dropped from 5.9 last season to 3.8 through five games this season, with an injury-plagued offensive line somewhat to blame, he remains a viable threat. He does have two 100-yard games and has scored in three of the five contests.
Snell is due for a big performance and it could come against the Tigers. Missouri's defense is giving up 194.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 11th in the SEC and 101st in the FBS. They also have allowed a whopping 14 rushing touchdowns in just four games. Don’t be surprised if Snell runs wild on the Tigers again.
2. Missouri offense vs. Kentucky defense
Despite having two of the more underrated running backs in the SEC in Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter, the Tigers could have a difficult time finding traction against an outstanding Wildcats run defense. Kentucky limited Crockett and Witter to a combined 66 rushing yards in last season’s game. And a much-improved run defense has been among the best in the nation so far, allowing just 74 rushing yards per game. That’s good for second in the SEC and third in the FBS.
If Missouri can’t run the ball effectively, the Tigers’ success on offense, or lack thereof, will rest squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Drew Lock. Since throwing for a school-record 521 yards and seven touchdowns against FCS opponent Missouri State, Lock has struggled. Over his last three games, he has totaled 594 passing yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Lock also lost one of his favorite targets earlier this week when wide receiver Dimetrios Mason was dismissed from the team.
But the news isn’t all bad, and despite Lock’s recent slump, he has the tools to bounce back. The extra week off should help in that regard as well. And as good as the Wildcats have been against the run, they are surrendering 275.4 passing yards per game, which places them next to last in the SEC and near the bottom (111th) nationally.
One of the biggest reasons that these two teams have very different records at this point is turnover margin. Missouri has committed 12 turnovers on the season while forcing just three. That minus-nine turnover differential is among the worst in the country and a major contributor to the Tigers’ 1-3 record. Meanwhile, Kentucky is one the opposite end of the spectrum with a plus-seven margin (11 takeaways, 4 giveaways) through five games.
Missouri’s had an extra week to prepare for this game and hopefully clean up some of its ball security issues. But practice is one thing so we’ll see how well the Tigers protect the ball on the road against an opportunistic Wildcats defense.
Last week’s open date could go a long way in helping Missouri get its act together. The problem is that the Tigers simply have too many issues to correct in just one week. If they can avoid costly turnovers, they could keep things interesting against a Kentucky team that seems to always let the other team hang around.
That said, a stingy Wildcats run defense should render the Mizzou offense one-dimensional. And the Kentucky offense matches up favorably in just about every conceivable way against a really bad Tigers defense. The Wildcats should score more than 27 points for the first time this season to secure a convincing win.
Prediction: Kentucky 34, Missouri 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.