The undefeated, No. 14-ranked Mississippi Bulldogs begin conference play this week as they head on the road to take on another undefeated squad: Kentucky.
For many fans, pundits and prognosticators, it’ll be easy to scoff at this matchup as “it’s just Kentucky.” Remember, the game is being played on synthetic grass and not hardwood, much to the chagrin of the Wildcats’ faithful, and Kentucky has never been one to fear on the gridiron. Right?
Well, this isn’t a Kentucky team to overlook, and Mississippi State knows that.
Not only do they know that because of what they’ve seen of the Wildcats on film, but because they know what it’s like to be in their shoes. After all, how long was Mississippi State the team that was constantly overlooked and looked down upon? Over how many years did teams like Alabama, Auburn and LSU scoff when they saw the Bulldogs on their schedule for the upcoming week? Nowadays, it’s a different story.
Nowadays, you can’t automatically mark off Kentucky week with a “W,” either. Ask Florida. The Gators went into Kentucky week assuming it would be an easy win. Just like it had been practically every year since 1986. They went into it cocky, arrogant and entitled, the hallmark traits of both weakness and strength carried by their head coach, Dan Mullen. The Wildcats walked out of The Swamp with a 27-16 victory, ending the Gators’ 31-game winning streak in the series.
No, the Bulldogs know better than to make the same mistake their former boss made. The Bulldogs know this should be their strongest opponent yet, and it’ll be a good test of where they really stand heading into the meat of their schedule.
If anything, the Wildcats appear to be a poor man’s version of Mississippi State – strong defense, powerful rushing attack and inconsistent but opportunistic passing attack.
The Bulldogs’ front seven will have their hands full with the rushing combo of QB Terry Wilson and RB Benny Snell. Wilson, a former Oregon signee, has given defenses fits while rushing for 223-yards and 2 TDs on 32 attempts (7 yards per carry), while Snell, who garnered first-team All-SEC honors last year while rushing for more than 1,300 yards and 19 TDs, has already racked up 375 yards rushing and 3 TDs on 62 attempts (6 yards per carry). And don’t forget about backup RB Asim Rose, either, who is averaging 8.6 yards per carry and has already found the end zone 3 times.
Snell, never lacking confidence, got the Bulldogs’ attention when asked about running into their imposing front seven. Snell gave them credit, praised their ability and scheme. Then he gave the reporters the sound bite you’ll hear all week.
“I’m going to run on any team,” Snell told reporters. “… This offense don’t fear nobody.”
As a whole, the Wildcats are averaging 282 rushing yards per game with 6.7 per carry. That’s third in the SEC (Mississippi State is first, by the way). That makes for a very interesting matchup with the very talented State front seven, which is giving up just 85 rushing yards per game and 2.5 per carry. Talk about strength on strength.
State will have less concern stopping the Wildcats passing attack, even considering the potential long-term loss of starting CB Jamal Peters. While Wilson has been lethal with his legs, he’s struggled to get into a rhythm passing the ball, throwing for just 392 yards (6.64 yards per attempt) with 2 TDs and 3 INTs. With that said, he has shown signs of improvement the past two weeks and put forth his best effort last week, completing 19-of-25 passes for 163 yards with no TDs and no picks.
The Wildcats use the run game to create passing opportunities, which should sound awfully familiar to State fans. If they can stop the run on first and second down and force them to throw on third downs, they’ll be able to keep the Cats’ offense on the sidelines.
Offensively for the Bulldogs, they’ll face a fast and aggressive Wildcats defense that flies to the ball. They’re tough on the line of scrimmage and they like to bring pressure early and often, especially with OLB Josh Allen, who’s already tallied 2 sacks and 4 TFLs after piling up 7 sacks last year.
Their aggression does open up opportunities to make big plays, though. Nick Fitzgerald will have plenty of room to run when he steps up in the pocket to avoid the blitz, and he’ll have ample opportunity to dump it off to one of the backs on a short pass. There’s also plenty of holes to be found in the intermediate and deep passing game when the Cats bring pressure.
Overall, Kentucky’s defense has been solid so far, allowing just over 300 total yards of offense per game and a very good 15 points per game, but they haven’t faced an offense as powerful as what State will bring to the table, which is averaging 587.7 yards and 50 points per game.
One way or another, this will be a good test for the Bulldogs, which is exactly what they need as they gear up for the toughest part of the schedule. After this week they have Florida, No. 9 Auburn, at No. 6 LSU and home against No. 22 Texas A&M. For them to get through that gauntlet unscathed, they’ll need to be humming on all cylinders, and the game against Kentucky provides them with one more opportunity to clean things up.
The advantage on both sides of the ball should lean toward Mississippi State.
As solid as the Wildcats have looked, they’re simply not as deep or talented as the Bulldogs. Mississippi State has the advantage at QB, WR, OL, DL and DB, and you can make the case it’s a wash at RB and LB. (Snell won’t agree.)
But that doesn’t mean you can overlook a hungry team that’s playing well with home field advantage, because that’s exactly what they feed off. Just like Mississippi State used to when they were the young upstarts looking for respect.