LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky is trying to hold onto second place in the SEC East while Missouri is still searching for its first conference win.
The two squads that will match up Saturday are trending in opposite directions. The Tigers are coming off an ugly home loss to Middle Tennessee while the Wildcats are searching for their third SEC win in a row — a feat the program hasn’t accomplished since 1999.
A win in Columbia, Mo., would get Kentucky its fifth victory of the season with a late November matchup against Austin Peay a given to get to No. 6 and bowl eligibility. Standing in the Wildcats way is an ugly road history that it’ll have to overcome.
Kentucky (4-3, 3-2 SEC) and Missouri (2-5, 0-3 SEC) kick off at noon ET on the SEC Network.
Here are five things to watch for Kentucky:
Overcome road woes
Mark Stoops is in the middle of his fourth year at the helm in Lexington and the Wildcats have just one road win in his tenure. Last year’s victory at South Carolina is the only time Kentucky has won outside the confines of Commonwealth Stadium since the coach arrived.
The 1-15 road record is severely lopsided, but no road win is more crucial for Stoops and company to grab than the one they’ll vie for Saturday. Missouri is the favorite in Las Vegas, but the Wildcats enter with all the momentum while Missouri enters on the heels of a loss to a Conference USA squad (Kentucky knows the feeling).
Kentucky isn’t used to 11 a.m. kickoffs, but there’s no excuse for the Wildcats to not clinch a much-needed win away from home.
Win the turnover game
Same story, different game. A 51-yard field goal was the only things that kept turnovers from spoiling Kentucky’s chances against Mississippi State. Stephen Johnson fumbled twice and one was returned for a score.
The Wildcats rank 125th out of 128 teams in the FBS in turnover margin at -9 while Missouri has as many takeaways as turnovers. Kentucky’s lack of care for the football hasn’t proved costly in the last few weeks, but it’s sure to catch up with them if the problem continues.
“It is unheard of, but we like to put a little drama in it,” Stoops joked of winning games despite losing the turnover battle.
Keep it on the ground
Missouri’s defense has been equally bad at stopping the run as the pass, the team ranks 12th in the SEC in both categories, but Kentucky is much more suited for attacking the Tigers on the ground.
Missouri is giving up 218 rushing yards per game and the Wildcats will try to increase that number. Kentucky has tallied 262, 258 and 216 rushing yards in its three conference wins behind the tandem of freshman Benny Snell and junior Boom Williams.
Snell rushed for 128 yards and Williams for 99 last weekend against Mississippi State. The Wildcats will add senior Jojo Kemp to the mix if healthy.
The Wildcats pose two of the top-15 running backs in the SEC paired alongside a dual-threat quarterback in Johnson. Kentucky hasn’t had success throwing the ball, but the problem is less concerning if the running game continues to fuel the offense.
Slow the game, slow the scoring
If Kentucky is able to do the above and establish its run game, this won’t be a problem for the Wildcats. However, if Stoops’ squad links a few three-and-outs together and gives the ball back to Missouri’s fast pace offense, Kentucky could find themselves in a scoring fest it’d like to avoid.
Missouri moves fast and has the ability to score fast, but Kentucky isn’t built that way. The Wildcats were able to top Mississippi State in a high scoring affair, but their other two SEC wins came in an ugly, low scoring fashion that more fits their style.
“We are not built that way to run away with games,” Stoops said after the win against Mississippi State.
Saturday figures to be another close game, and Kentucky’s offense is better suited for a low scoring matchup.
Will Stephen Johnson keep winning?
Kentucky keeps winning and it’s done it with a backup quarterback.
Johnson, in spite of his fumbling issues and subpar passing numbers, has only lost to Alabama since taking over as the starter. Road wins have been hard to come by for Kentucky, and Johnson’s greatest act to date would be leading the Wildcats to a win in Columbia.
His 292 passing yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State were a welcomed and unexpected sight for Kentucky’s offense. If he can match that performance minus the fumbles, then the Wildcats will be in a good position Saturday.
Sure, the coaching staff would like to be better passing stats, but right now they’ll take Johnson’s results.
“He really does have good poise and resiliency,” Stoops said. “You have to at that position.”