The Kentucky Wildcats (5-2, 2-2 SEC) felt optimistic entering the Week 8 matchup at LSU.

The Wildcats had surpassed their win total from the last two seasons through seven games and seemed to be a serious contender in an open SEC East. Still, Kentucky was an 11.5-point underdog entering the game, generous considering the actual outcome of 41-3.

Following the loss, the perception of Kentucky is becoming more realistic. Though the team’s 5-1 start is admirable progress, the Wildcats have benefited from an easy schedule to open the season and are now finding themselves in difficult matchups. This week, Kentucky will face another tough test in No. 1 overall Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have gone from being unranked in preseason to claiming the top ranking in Week 8.

Mississippi State’s success is due in large part to the performance of quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott has 1,478 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions on 96-of-156 passing, while rushing for 576 yards and eight touchdowns on 106 attempts. The junior is a midseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, especially if his team continues its impressive run through a tough SEC schedule.

Josh Robinson leads Mississippi State with a career-best 689 rushing yards. Robinson also has eight rushing touchdowns, which ties Prescott for the Bulldogs offense. The junior leads is second only to Todd Gurley in yards and yards per game among SEC players.

The Bulldogs defense ranks No. 6 overall in interceptions, No. 12 in rush defense, No. 10 in opposing third down percentage and No. 2 in red zone defense. However, Mississippi State also ranks No. 121 in pass defense, allowing more than 300 yards per game.

Kentucky enters Saturday’s game as a 14.5-point underdog, even with home field advantage. While last week’s game may have been a humbling experience for the young Wildcats team, Week 9 presents an opportunity for Kentucky to make a statement in victory or defeat. Mississippi State is expected to win, but the Wildcats could provide an inspiring performance and capture — and I hate using this term — a “moral victory.”

If Kentucky finishes Saturday’s game within 10 points of the nation’s top team, it will have momentum facing a tough stretch of games to end the season. The Wildcats have upcoming games at Missouri (Nov. 1), vs. No. 9 Georgia (Nov. 8), at Tennessee (Nov. 15) and at Louisville (Nov. 29). Despite the team’s quick start, Kentucky needs to win at least one game to secure bowl eligibility. The Wildcats’ most favorable matchups are all on the road against rival teams hungry to keep their seasons alive.

Saturday’s game will be the most difficult for Kentucky this season. Surviving with a respectable scoring margin should help the confidence of the young roster and keep optimism alive in Lexington.