The Mississippi St. Bulldogs come into Commonwealth Stadium tomorrow ranked #20 in the AP poll, the third ranked team in a row that the Kentucky Wildcats have faced on the gridiron, but the first one ranked above the top 15. I suppose that's reason for optimism -- of a sort.
With the likely season-ending injury to Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith, and the UK-career-ending injury to CoShik Williams, Kentucky's offense comes into this game a different animal than we saw put up 47 points against Kent St. Golden Flashes and 31 against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. But neither of those worthies present the challenge that an SEC team does, particularly one ranked in the top 20.
So what does Kentucky have to do to pull off the upset tomorrow? Let's look at three big things:
- Stop, or at least slow down, the Mississippi St. running game. The Bulldogs haven't played a killer schedule. In fact, they've only played one SEC team, and that was the Auburn Tigers, who currently sit at 1 and 4. Also, the Troy Trojans gave the Bulldogs a tough scrap in their third game, 30-24.
Regardless, the Bulldogs are undefeated on the season, and Kentucky is sitting at 1-4 and has lost to a Sun Belt team. That's not a recipe for optimism.
MSU's rushing game isn't exactly the envy of the SEC, but it currently stands about mid-pack, earning about 5 yards per attempt. The problem is, Kentucky's rushing defense is second only in suckage to that of the Auburn Tigers. If form holds, the Bulldogs will dominate the line of scrimmage and time of possession.
So Kentucky must find a way to stop the power running game to have any chance at all to win.
- Possess the football. Kentucky is dead last in the SEC in time of possession, and it isn't even close. The Wildcats average a full minute less of time of possession per game than Arkansas, its nearest lowly competitor.
If UK allows their defense to be subjected to the big, physical line of Mississippi State for 35 minutes, the Wildcats will go down by at least two scores. Kentucky simply doesn't have the bulk in their defensive depth to be able to stand up to an SEC offensive line for that amount of time.
- Produce on special teams. Kentucky must create at least one big play on special teams that produces or sets up a touchdown. Kentucky has actually been good on special teams this year, and this is a game in which they should be somewhat competitive, at least in the first half.
If the Wildcats can produce a special teams touchdown or short field that leads to a touchdown, it could place them in a position to compete to win the game. We don't know what the UK offense will produce with the dual-headed quarterback system of Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, but the Wildcats have been able to move the football even against strong SEC teams for several possessions, even with a backup quarterback.
If special teams can produce something, it might just be enough.
I know it's irrational to be optimistic given what we've seen so far, but I am for this game. The defense continues to improve, Mister Cobble is now back at most of his strength, and the freshmen in the linebacking corps and defensive backfield are starting to get it.
It will require a bit of a leap, and a significant amount of good fortune, but I think Kentucky is just plain due for a little bit of both.