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Previewing the CBS Game Of The Week Between The Wildcats and The Bulldogs

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Commonwealth Stadium hosts a CBS prime-time game against the number one team in the country. What could go wrong?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats have no time to lick their wounds from the beating LSU dished out on the bayou, as the top-ranked team in all the land visits Lexington. Mississippi State will be UK's best opponent to date, and likely will remain so for the entire season. MSU has a very experienced team on both sides of the ball, is well-coached, and is led by a Heisman contending quarterback. This is the quality of opponent that could make the score embarrassing for UK very quickly if they play like last week. If UK eliminates the uncharacteristic sloppiness of its special teams from last week, executes better on offense, and continues to play solid defense, it could still lose this game. That's how good MSU has played.

Another important reason for UK to bounce back and rise to the challenge: the game is in the CBS prime-time slot, and will be viewed on millions of television sets across the country. If the presence of semi-lucid Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson in the CBS announcing booth didn't mark this contest as a big enough affair, Papa Brooks is also flying cross-country to take in the game:

UK cannot get embarrassed in front of Rich Brooks, plain and simple. The man could just as easily be spending his free time at the craps tables in Macau, squeezing in eighteen at Pebble Beach, fly-fishing in Patagonia, or tending to his tomatoes. The stakes have never been higher.

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F/+ ratings combine the S&P+ rankings and the FEI rankings. Ratings described:

The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) considers each of the nearly 20,000 possessions every season in major college football. All drives are filtered to eliminate first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores. A scoring rate analysis of the remaining possessions then determines the baseline possession expectations against which each team is measured. A team is rewarded for playing well against good teams - win or lose; and is punished more severely for playing poorly against bad teams than it is rewarded for playing well against bad teams.

The S&P+ Ratings are a college football ratings system derived from both play-by-play and drive data from all 800+ of a season's FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). There are four key components to the S&P+

If interested, here is a glossary that might be helpful. Lastly, keep in mind that the F/+ percentage ratings measure every team against a perfectly average team. So, if the F/+ rating of a team is 0% that team is considered perfectly average by this rating system.

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Kentucky and Mississippi State Rankings

Measurement Kentucky Mississippi State
F+ Overall 76 (-5.3%) 6 (29.3%)
F+ Offense 89 (-5.7%) 21 (11.8%)
F+ Defense 56 (2.0%) 7 (17.1%)
F+ Special Teams 93 (-1.5%) 61 (0.3%)
FEI Overall 89 18
S&P+ Overall 59 (214.1) 3 (273)
S&P+ Rushing Offense 47 (111.5) 11 (133.6)
S&P+ Rushing Defense 79 (96.3) 4 (151.3)
S&P+ Passing Offense 67 (100.9) 2 (163.4)
S&P+ Passing Defense 78 (97.1) 8 (143.3)

Mississippi State, coming off a bye week, has a clear edge over Kentucky in every measurement listed above. They have a highly efficient offense, and the unheralded defense is also top ten quality. Unlike storied programs, MSU doesn't sign Top 10 recruiting classes, but they do an excellent job of developing their talent (hence why you never hear Mark Stoops say "recruit" without also adding "and develop"). In the 85 man roster, 19 are seniors (17 are three year lettermen), and another 18 are juniors (13 are two year lettermen). In the two-deep depth chart, 37 out of 44 players have been in the program for going on three years. This is a team comprised of grizzled veterans who have spent a lot of time on the practice field together, and shuffling back and forth between the film and weight rooms.

After crossing over into positive F+ territory the last two weeks, UK has fallen back into the negative with a new rating of -5.3%. This is largely due to the big hit in its FEI rating, because the team maintained its S&P+ ratings. This is probably because the respect S&P+ has for LSU as an opponent.  Further reminder that ratings aren't static, and neither are team performances. Worth noting and then immediately bleaching from your memory: UK's F+ special teams rating dropped from 19th to 61st after the LSU debacle.

UK's Defense Versus MSU's Offense

MSU's offense starts with it's Heisman contending quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott has thrown for close to 1500 yards, and almost rushed for 600 yards in just six games. Those are Cam Newton and Tim Tebow numbers. He helms an offense averaging 41 points and 530 yards per game, and those numbers are factoring in their games against tough Auburn and LSU defenses. Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot will earn their pay checks this week, as the offense has no apparent weaknesses to readily exploit.

Pop Quiz: Can you name the second leading rusher in the SEC? If you guessed MSU's Josh Robinson come collect your prize. Yes that's right, this offense has both a potential Heisman winner behind center, and a top SEC rusher who is averaging 7 yards per carry along with 114 yards rushing per game. To counter, one would think UK will load the box and hope its front seven, along with a cheating safety, can win its share of battles against MSU's veteran offensive line. Get MSU in passing downs so that it plays into UK's defensive strengths of rushing the passer and downfield coverage.

The problem with that strategy is not only the aforementioned Prescott, but MSU also has two great receivers who need all the attention UK can give them. Jameon Lewis is 100% healthy, and the slot receiver was averaging nearly 15 yards per reception prior to his injury against A&M. The other receiver is De'Runnya Wilson who just might end up being MSU's greatest receiver of all-time. Also, Robinson does a good job receiving out of the backfield, so the linebackers must also be aware of his presence on passing downs too.

MSU's offensive line is led by Blaine Causell and Dillon Day, but they are all quality SEC linemen. Many thought this group would take a hit when Gabe Jackson went on to the NFL, but they've only gotten better. They man-handled a LSU defensive line that held UK far below it's rushing average, and pressured Patrick Towles most of the night.

UK's defense will be challenged at every position Saturday. MSU's offense is perfectly balanced, and has weapons throughout. It's an embarrassment of riches that has humbled some of the best defenses in the country already. Their zone and power blocking schemes are powered by an excellent running back and offensive line. They also call designed quarterback runs, asking you to tackle Prescott when he also has the benefit of a lead blocker. Want to play zone coverage? Prescott is smart and accurate enough to find the open windows, and deliver the ball to his dangerous receivers. Move to man coverage? If you do everything right and cover downfield, Prescott still has the wheels to escape the pocket and pick up the first down after UK's defensive backs have their backs turned in coverage.

UK could call just the right alignment/blitz/coverage, properly execute assignments and fundamentals, play physical, and still lose the majority of plays Saturday. For those reasons, I suggest UK fans focus less on how UK's defense performs, and admire the MSU offense for the beautifully balanced titan that it is. Besides, the head coach makes himself easy to root for.

On the bright side, MSU has given up thirteen turnovers this season, and UK does have a penchant for forcing turnovers. If UK can force a few against MSU in their territory that could make things interesting.

UK's Offense Versus MSU's Defense

Kentucky's offense was uncharacteristically inefficient last Saturday. The offense's execution was a major reason why it was held to season low points and total yards. Another contributing factor was the talent and skill of LSU's defense. According to the adjusted stats, MSU's defense is even better than LSU's. They hold teams to 120 yards rushing per game, have 21 sacks, and boast the top red zone defense in the SEC.

MSU's defensive strength is it's front seven. The defensive line is anchored by defensive end Preston Smith. Smith has already been named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week three times this year. Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle will have their hands full against him. I suspect UK will use a running back or tight end this week to help UK's tackles slow Smith down. Chris Jones is a former five star recruit who plays defensive tackle, and MSU also has Ryan Brown and Kaleb Eulls who are having good seasons. This front will pose issues for UK's rushing game, and probably gets regular pressure on Towles when UK takes the time to throw deep.

MSU also has some great linebackers, led by Bernardrick McKinney who is arguably the best linebacker in the SEC. He leads MSU in tackles, has six tackles for loss, and also has three sacks of his own. Beniquez Brown is the second leading tackler for MSU, and is setting himself up to be their best defensive player after McKinney moves on to the NFL.

The secondary is allowing 308 passing yards per game, which is last in the SEC, but it's ranked 8th in S&P+ Passing Defense. The adjusted stats are pointing out that MSU's secondary performed efficiently against Texas A&M and Auburn's top passing offenses, and that a lot of their yardage probably came during garbage time (this is an opportune time to point out the value of adjusted stats over just using raw stats). The unit as a whole does have six interceptions, and Will Redmond and Jay Hughes have two a piece. Five defensive backs are also listed in MSU's total tackles list, indicating their ability to tackle in space too.

UK's rushing attack is a little better than it's aerial attack this season, but MSU poses a match-up problem for UK in that respect. Their front seven is legitimate and UK will be hard pressed to run the ball unless they find success throwing the ball first. MSU's secondary is pretty good, but is probably vulnerable to giving up yardage outside of the red zone. Can UK take advantage? I would have been more optimistic before last week's performance.

I suspect UK's offense will play better than last week, but that likely won't make a difference barring excellent field position. Towles will be pressured, and it'll be interesting to see if he maintains his fundamentals this week in the face of a strong pass rush. I'll also be looking to see if the receivers stay low out of their breaks, and if they block better on the perimeter. If MSU plays 4-6 yards off the receivers, UK will take the short passes all game to avoid the pass rush, and running the ball at MSU's tough defensive interior. I'd be surprised if MSU takes that route, though after watching the LSU game, and the second half against Vanderbilt. For UK's offense to improve going forward, its receivers must play better against press coverages.

Comparing Track Records

Kentucky

Opponent F+ Offense F+ Defense Outcome
LSU 42 (4.6%) 31 (7.4%) 41-3 (L)
Florida 77 (-3.6%) 49 (4.1%) 20-20* (L)
South Carolina 5 (16.8%) 89 (-6.8%) 45-38 (W)

Mississippi State

Opponent F+ Offense F+ Defense Outcome
LSU 42 (4.6%) 31 (7.4%) 34-29 (W)
Texas A&M 34 (6.9%) 87 (-6.2%) 48-31 (W)
Auburn 7 (15.5%) 18 (11.6%) 38-23 (W)

The first thing that jumps out is the superior level of competition that MSU has beaten this season compared to UK. LSU, A&M, and Auburn are all teams that project for bowl games, and they were all thoroughly handled. Kentucky's best win is against a South Carolina team that will be hard-pressed to make post-season play, and Florida is rapidly on the decline.

The good news for UK partisans, is that MSU's F+ Offense rating is lower than South Carolina's. UK's defense has faced a great offense already this year, and that experience may pay some dividends in this match-up. The one common opponent, LSU, has two starkly different outcomes. UK never got into the game against LSU due to a litany of special teams miscues, and MSU was destroying LSU until  they scored 19 points in the fourth quarter.

Looking at these numbers, MSU probably scores roughly between 38-45 points, and UK probably scores between 7-14 points. Then again, UAB has an offensive rating similar to UK's and scored 34 points against MSU in Week Two so freaky things do occur sometimes (emphasis on the "sometimes").

TL;DR

This isn't rocket science. MSU is really, really good and UK - which I'm confident will play better than last week - appears to be an average team this season. Being average is enough for UK to get its sixth win (and just maybe squeeze out a seventh), but it's not happening this week unless MSU shoots itself in the foot repeatedly, and UK takes advantage every single time.

I, for one, welcome our benevolent Overlords. All Hail State.

MSU: 38; UK: 10