In a strange way, Saturday’s matchup against Kentucky might be Mississippi State’s game of the year (other than the obvious one at the end).

After crushing Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs will look to build on their momentum and take another step toward bowl eligibility on Saturday night when they host the AP No. 12 Wildcats.

I understand, of course, that playing in the SEC West means gigantic games against blue-chip heavyweight opponents every year. That being said, it seems like Mississippi State’s annual matchup with Kentucky provides an opportunity for one or both teams to showcase that they’re better than everyone thinks.

Let’s start looking at this week’s showdown at Davis Wade Stadium

Who are the Wildcats?

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops took the Kentucky job in the height of the SEC’s glory in 2013. Stoops currently sits 2nd on the all-time Kentucky wins list with 55, behind someone named Bear Bryant who has 60.

In the Stoops era, the Wildcats became feisty, tough, and pretty dang good at football. In 2018, they reached their highest ranking under Stoops at No. 9 and ended the season by beating No. 12 Penn State in the Citrus Bowl to finish 10-3, their first 10-win season since 1977.

The 2021 Wildcats are 6-1 and in 2nd place in the SEC East.

The only blemish: at No. 1 Georgia. No shame there.

Kentucky trailed the Bulldogs by just 7 at the half and lost by just 17, which is pretty good compared to how the rest of the country has done. Furthermore, Kentucky’s 2nd-quarter touchdown is still the only first-half TD the Georgia defense has surrendered all year.

Before losing to Georgia 2 weeks ago, Kentucky thumped LSU 42-21 to improve to 6-0 with wins over LSU, Florida, Missouri and South Carolina.

The Wildcats are led on offense by running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., who leads the SEC in rushing yards (775) and yards per game (110.7). That average includes rushing for just 7 yards on 7 attempts against Georgia (Georgia is good at defense). Rodriguez is aided by elite offensive tackle, Darian Kinnard, a top NFL prospect.

Defensively, the Wildcats are excellent. They’re currently No. 3 in the SEC behind Georgia and Alabama in total team defense (Mississippi State is 4th). Kentucky concedes just 320 yards per game and fewer than 20 points per game.

What’s at stake?

For the Bulldogs (4-3), bowl eligibility must be a priority. Young teams need the extra dozen-or-so practices wherever they can get them. Having 1 more game of education and unity and film only helps young teams and coaching staff. It’s of the utmost importance.

Mississippi State has games remaining against Ole Miss, Auburn and Arkansas, all of which are winnable and losable in my opinion. The only game the Bulldogs absolutely should win is on Nov. 20 against Tennessee State.

That means that beating Kentucky essentially locks up a bowl bid for the Bulldogs with a month left.

Fortunately, these Dogs play well against their biggest opponents. While the Wildcats don’t have much historical prestige, they’ve been one of the toughest and most stable programs under Stoops. Beating Kentuck sends a loud and clear message to the SEC and all of college football that the Mike Leach Era is ahead of schedule and that the wins over Texas A&M and NC State were not flukes.

Early look-ahead

Kentucky is favored by just 2 points and the points total is 47. That means that the Las Vegas oddsmakers consider this game to essentially be a toss-up in the neighborhood of 24-23.

That makes me feel a lot better because this is the first MSU game this year that I don’t have a read on. You may disagree, but I think I’ve been fairly close with predictions and gut feelings. With this one, I got nothin’.

However, the early observation is simple: This game, once again, will come down to the Mississippi State defensive line versus their opponent’s running game. So far this year, that’s been an advantage for the Bulldogs.