Why Mississippi State game might be key to Kentucky's season
It’s something of an axiom, particularly in SEC play, that the next game your team plays is always the most important. In Kentucky’s case, it might be the literal truth.
After coughing up an 11-point lead to Florida last Saturday night, Kentucky football could be stumbling back to a 6-6 type of season, back to the lower-middle order of the SEC. Or it could be just fine — and the loss to Florida could be a combination of bad luck (season-ending injury to Terry Wilson, loss of 2nd-string safety Taj Dodson), bad officiating (loss of starting safety Yusuf Corker on a questionable targeting call and brutal late-game targeting call on defensive lineman T.J. Carter), and unusually bad execution (unblocked Florida defender on crucial 4th-and-1 play to open the 4th quarter, shanked 35-yard field goal to win it).
As is the case so many times for Kentucky, the distinction between the two scenarios probably lies with their performance against Mississippi State.
It’s not a big secret: In the arms race of the SEC, Kentucky has historically struggled to keep up with the big dogs — Florida (since 1990), Georgia and the West powers. But State is one of the few schools with a history and budget that mostly parallels UK’s. Each team has won 23 games against the other, head-to-head. And each knows that the path to the top half of the SEC goes through the other, whether it was Dan Mullen’s 7-year streak against UK or Kentucky’s miracle win in 2016 or bulldozing of MSU in 2018.
Kentucky’s November schedule (home vs. Tennessee, at Vandy, home vs. UT-Martin, home vs. Louisville) looks very favorable. October contains 2 home games (Arkansas and Mizzou) and that tough trip to Athens. If Kentucky can reach November with 5 or 6 wins in hand, the Wildcats have the chance to put together another big season.
Let’s be clear, Kentucky can lose to State and still put together a decent season. But any dreams of another 10-win campaign include a victory in Starkville. State is the second of a tough trio of games for Kentucky — home against Florida, at MSU and at South Carolina. Based on how those 3 have played, State looks like the most reasonable chance for UK to pull a mild upset. If Kentucky can win at Starkville, then the Wildcats could still solidly be looking at a 9-3 regular season — only Georgia looks unapproachable.
Moreover, road games have been a critical component in Kentucky’s recent success. In the past 3 years, UK has won 8 road games, including 6 as underdogs and 5 SEC games. Last year’s road victories included a last-second win at Missouri and their surprising upset of Florida. Given Kentucky’s 2019 schedule, Georgia on the road looks unwinnable, and the Wildcats will likely be a mild favorite even at Vanderbilt. That leaves State and Carolina as possible road upsets.
Kentucky has a 5-year winning streak against South Carolina, but South Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski vs. a struggling Kentucky secondary might not be a great matchup. State, meanwhile, has continued to struggle through the air, and has played its best football on the ground.
Keep in mind, this is the Kentucky team that outrushed State 229-56 last year in Lexington. And for Kentucky’s part, it has played decent run defense so far in 2019.
A win against State could give Kentucky the confidence to withstand the aerial assaults that South Carolina and Mizzou will probably display. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s offense has shown the ability to play sharper than the 2018 squad, albeit without a monster defense to support it.
If Mark Stoops is going to adapt his game planning and coaching to recognize that he has to depend more on his offense, this weekend would be a fine time to do so. With a bevy of potential narratives for Kentucky’s season, Saturday’s game looks like a key time for the definitive statement to emerge.