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Why Kentucky vs. Mississippi State could make or break the Wildcats’ season

Wins over Mississippi State have typically been an element of successful football seasons for the Wildcats.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

After that disheartening experience last week watching Florida score 19 unanswered fourth quarter points to steal another football victory from Kentucky in the waning minutes, I thought it might be interesting to turn to historical precedents to see how the outcome of the Mississippi State game might foretell the success (or lack thereof) of the remainder of the football Cats’ season.

I collected data on the outcomes of 41 Kentucky/Mississippi State games all the way back to 1950. While that includes some games from the Bear Bryant glory days, the Cats did not play the “Maroons” from 1959 through 1971, so most of the data reflects a relatively modern genre of football in terms of style of play and rules and regulations.

During this period of time, the two teams have played fairly evenly, with Kentucky claiming victory in 20 of the contests and Mississippi State winning the other 21. This sets up a nice balanced data set for a few comparisons.

The first thing I looked at was the number of games Kentucky won during the entire season in years they beat Mississippi State and compared to years they did not. Given the automatic one-win difference, we would hope Kentucky would win more games when they beat the Bulldogs, and it turns out that on average they did. UK has won an average of 6.5 games a season when they beat Mississippi State versus 4.5 when they don’t, which is a statistically significant difference of two games per season.

In the world of UK football, two extra wins can make all the difference between a successful season and one that disappoints.

Secondly, I wondered if the margin of victory in the Mississippi State game (or margin of defeat as it was in a little more than half those games) might be an indicator of the Cats performance for the entire season.

To find out, I fit a simple linear regression model using margin of victory in the Mississippi State game as a predictor for number of wins in UK’s season. The result revealed a statistically significant relationship between the two: while margin of victory only explains about 25% of the variation in win total (which actually is kind of high when you consider we are talking about the margin of a single game), the data suggests on average every 15 points of margin against Mississippi State has coincided with an additional victory for the Cats over the full season.

Finally, I was curious how a victory over Mississippi State correlated with the Cats’ postseason prospects. While this is a fortunate period where we would like to assume a bowl game is a given (at least I would like to), the fact is a bowl has rarely been a sure bet for the Cats.

The good news is that in seasons Kentucky has beaten Mississippi State, they won enough games to be invited to a bowl 60% of the time; when the Cats lost, two thirds of the time they won enough regular season games to watch bowl games from home.

So, as the wealth management people on television will readily (and at a very rapid pace) tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future success. But it has been known to be a reasonable indicator.

Wins over Mississippi State have typically been an element of successful football seasons for the Kentucky Wildcats, so here’s to a good outing on Saturday afternoon.

While the success of the rest of the season may not be riding on it, a win in Starkville will certainly help.