It is hard to believe that just two years ago, the Mississippi State Bulldogs were the number one team in the country when they invaded Commonwealth Stadium. It's hard to recall a team that has crashed and burned so much in such a short time as now the Bulldogs are 2-4 and have a loss to South Alabama on their resume.
It's hard to imagine that Dan Mullen is on the hot seat, yet he apparently is. Both teams are under pressure to make a bowl game and is a must-win game for both teams, so both teams are feeling the pressure. It is also another chance for Mark Stoops to snap another streak as the Bulldogs have beaten UK seven years in a row.
With that said, Let's meet the Bulldogs.
While Dak Prescott is gone, the Bulldogs have another dual-threat nightmare to worry about. Nick Fitzgerald is completing 55.2%of his passed for 998 yards and 8 TDs against 4 INTs. He has not passed for more than 181 yards against a SEC opponent so far, and LSU held him to just 120 yards passing. He is averaging just 6.05 yards per pass attempt.
It's not like Fitzgerald has to have a big game through the air to hurt a team. He leads the Bulldogs in rushing with 431 yards and 5.4 yards a carry. He gouged South Carolina for 195 yards on the ground and 11.5 yards a carry. He can be held somewhat in check, however. In games against LSU, Auburn, and BYU, he has just 115 yards on 46 carries.
After Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs employ a running back by committee approach. Senior Brandon Holloway has 208 yards on the ground and averages 4.6 yards a carry. He is a decent receiver out of the backfield with 14 catches. However, he is injured and may not play versus the Wildcats.
Fellow senior Ashton Shumpert has 165 yards on the ground and sophomore Aeris Williams 149. All three of these runners average over 4.0 yards a carry and the Bulldogs can grind the game away on the ground.
After a thousand year season last year, Fred Ross is Fitzgerald's favorite target by far. He has 34 catches for 386 yards and 5 TDs. He had 5 TD grabs last year. Donald Gray started the season fast and has 20 catches for 275 yards and 2 TD grabs. In the last two games, he has just two receptions for 17 yards. Keith Mixon and Malik Dear both have 10 receptions each.
The Bulldogs do a good job of running the ball as a team and average 190.7 yards a game and 4.8 yards a carry. It is a fairly balanced attack as the passing game averaged 211 yards a game.
The Mississippi State front seven has done a pretty good job of limiting the run they year. They allow just 136.2 yards a game and 3.6 yards per carry. AJ Jefferson has been a terror in the opposing team's backfield. Of his 26 tackles, 10 of those are for a loss, and he leads the team with four sacks. Johnathan Calvin has 32 tackles and 1.5 sacks, and he is a good run stuffer. Cory Thomas has 3.5 tackles for a loss while Nelson Adams adds two sacks.
Richie Brown is having a great year leading the linebacking corps. He has 51 tackles and a sack, and he covers a lot of the field. Leo Lewis has 43 tackles and two tackles in the backfield. JT Gray does a good job of getting into the backfield with 3.5 TFL and a sack. Traver Jung has 1.5 tackles among his 10 tackles.
The injury bug could affect the Bulldogs on defense as well as Kivon Coman could miss the game. Coleman leads the defensive backfield with 2 INT. He also has 2.5 TFL among his 28 tackles. Jamoral Graham is a very solid ball defender and leads the Bulldogs with five passes defended and 4 broken up. He has an interception as well. Mark McLaurin has 29 tackles and an interception and has broken up four passes and defended three others. Brandon Bryant is a solid defender and adds 29 tackles to the secondary.
This is a defense that Kentucky have success on as they allow 361 yards a game and 26.5 points a game. They gave up 35 points to UMass, so it is not a Florida or Alabama level defense at all.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
Much like the Tennessee or the Florida streaks, there really is no reason for this streak to be this long. For the most part, Mississippi State has been historically pretty evenly matched with Kentucky, but the Cats have not been able to beat Dan Mullen.
There is pressure for Mark Stoops to do what Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips could not do and I think that this could be the year. Kentucky's defense has played progressively better as the season has gone on. This is not the Mississippi State offense of the past few years and facing a dual threat quarterback like Fitzgerald will show how far this defense has really progressed.
Nothing comes easy for the Kentucky Wildcats football team and this game will not either. I'm kind of excited to see what this offense looks like with Eddie Gran having two weeks to prepare for the Bulldogs and I expect to see one of the best overall performances from this offense.
Make no mistake. This is not the Mississippi State team from two years ago or even last year. They trailed Auburn 35-0 and are coming off a loss to BYU. This is a game that I had Kentucky pegged to win in the preseason, and nothing has happened to change that.
If this team is not ready prepared, that is on Mark Stoops and his seat gets hotter with a loss. I like the odds of this team continuing to improve and having two full weeks to prepare for Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs. Let's call this a 28-24 Wildcats win in Mark Stoops' biggest game.