It will be an early wake-up call for Coach Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday with an 11:00 am CT kickoff against Ole Miss as a pair of ranked, undefeated teams, will collide in Oxford.
In addition to the early start time, the Wildcats will be in unfamiliar territory, staying an hour away from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at a Tupelo hotel in what Stoops said this week would be his very first trip to Oxford during his long coaching career.
What will be familiar to Stoops is Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin as the two have battled for years at various coaching stops, including the last meeting between the two teams in 2000 that resulted in Kiffin’s first win as the Rebels head coach.
Kiffin, one of the top offensive coaches in the country, is known for his uptempo, pass-first style of offense, that helped Matt Coral become a third-round pick for the Carolina Panthers. However, this year the passing game has been a work in progress as Kiffin only recently named a starting quarterback as Jaxson Dart, a USC transfer, won the job outright after throwing for 154 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s 35-27 win over Tulsa.
This season, Ole Miss has turned to a potent running game and currently leads the SEC in rushing with 1,123 yards (280.75 per game). By comparison, Kentucky ranks next to last in the conference in rushing yards with 326 yards (81.50 per game).
The good news for Kentucky’s run game is that help is on the way as Chris Rodriguez will be back in the lineup and is expected to be a difference-maker after missing the first four games for disciplinary reasons. In his four years at Kentucky, the Georgia native has rushed for 2,740 career rushing yards, good for sixth on UK’s career rushing list.
The big news out of Oxford this week has been Kiffin’s pointed criticism of the Ole Miss home crowds this season as the stands are often half-empty in the second half as students would rather tailgate in the Grove, a 10-acre grassy area in the center of campus, than cheer on the Rebels inside the 64,038-seat stadium.
“When you come back out, run out of the tunnel, and it looks like a high school game playing in a college stadium, you can’t let that affect you,” Kiffin said Monday during his weekly press conference. “There’s psychology to that, obviously. There’s home field advantage for a reason. When it goes the other way, you kind of have that feeling that, ‘Man, are we still really playing in a game here?’ The players have to fight that. We use that as a learning lesson for our guys. If that’s the case, that’s the case. I’m worried about what I can control. I’ve tried social media in here for two years. We’ll worry about what we can control and that’s getting our players ready to play.”
This week’s game will also give Stoops another chance to silence his critics about the fact that he’s never won an SEC West road game during his 10 years at Kentucky. On paper, this could be the year to break the streak as a slight majority of our Sea of Blue staff writers have picked the Wildcats to win in Oxford. In other SEC play, the staff is split right down the middle on the Texas A&M and Mississippi State matchup and is unanimous in picking No. 2-ranked Alabama to get a road win at Arkansas.
It’s shaping up to be another fun week to watch SEC football. Go Cats!
Game of the Week - (8) Kentucky at (16) Ole Miss
Flashback: The last meeting between UK and Ole Miss resulted in Kiffin’s very first win as the Rebels head coach in a 42-41 overtime victory in 2020 at Kroger Field.
Kentucky led 28-14 in the third quarter and looked to be in control as the Wildcats used a strong rushing game behind Rodriguez, Terry Wilson and AJ Rose who combined for 379 yards on the ground. But Ole Miss stormed back late with three unanswered touchdowns before Rodriguez scored on a 1-yard run with 2:04 remaining to send the game into overtime at 35-all. The Cats drew first blood in overtime on a 10-yard run by Wilson, but Matt Ruffolo missed the PAT and Ole Miss would tie the game on a 3-yard pass play before the Rebels stole the win with a made extra point.
Free Agency: As one of the best quotes in all of college football, Kiffin has been vocal about the pros and cons of the transfer portal, calling it “free agency” just like in the NFL. However, the former NFL coach has fully embraced the new rule as Ole Miss has created a promotional video and a line of apparel around the “Come to the SIP” theme. The Rebels currently have 28 transfers on its roster, with many playing key roles on each side of the ball.
UK Rebels: Kiffin also knows that the portal works both ways and will have to watch former Ole Miss standouts Jacquez Jones (linebacker) and Keidron Smith (cornerback) in Kentucky blue this week as both have emerged as anchors for the Wildcat defense. The former Rebels have reportedly been spending extra time with UK quarterback Will Levis this week to share intel about Ole Miss defensive philosophies.
Stripe Out: In an effort to get more fans in the stands on Saturday, Ole Miss will host its first-ever “Stripe Out” against Kentucky with fans asked to wear traditional colors of red and navy to create stripes throughout the various sections of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. You might just see a large contingent of Kentucky fans wearing white to break the cycle.
Upset Special - (23) Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Texas A&M will face its first true road test this week and should be the favorite according to rankings. However, Coach Mike Leach and the Bulldogs beat the Aggies last year at Kyle Field and will now try to make it two in row behind quarterback Will Rogers, who leads the SEC with 1,386 passing yards. Texas A&M has struggled offensively and will now be without standout wide receiver Ainias Smith, who recently suffered a season-ending leg injury. This should be a fun game between a pair of 3-1 teams as Mississippi State has a great opportunity to pull off the upset.
Things to Know for Week 5
Hurricane Ian: Due to this week’s devastating Category 1 hurricane, the SEC schedule has been modified with South Carolina beating South Carolina State 50-10 on Thursday night and Florida moving its game this week against Eastern Washington to Sunday afternoon.
Hog Wild: Interest in this week’s Alabama-Arkansas game has been a hot topic as oddsmakers currently have Alabama favored to win by 17.5 points. After Alabama’s recent scare against Texas, look for many high rollers to take the Hogs and the points this week.
Bye Week: Week 5 begins the Bye Week in the SEC with Tennessee and Vanderbilt getting the week off. Kentucky will be off in Week 8 (October 22nd) and will have extra time to prepare for its road game in Knoxville against rival Tennessee.
Big Board: Will Levis continues to climb up the 2023 NFL Draft Boards, coming in as the No. 4 player overall in ESPN’s Big Board by Mel Kiper and the No. 2 quarterback behind Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. Under new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, a long-time coach in the NFL, Levis has continued to improve each week and could take another huge step forward on the national scene with a big game on Saturday.
SEC Football TV Schedule Week 5
- South Carolina 50, SC State 10
- (1) Georgia at Missouri (7:30 pm on SEC Network)
- (2) Alabama at (10) Arkansas (3:30 pm on CBS)
- (8) Kentucky at (16) Ole Miss (12:00 pm on ESPN)
- (23) Texas A&M at Mississippi State (4:00 pm on SEC Network)
- LSU at Auburn (7:00 pm on ESPN)
- E. Washington at (20) Florida (12:00 pm on ESPN+)