They won at Southern Mississippi by seven, rallied to overcome FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky by nine, outlasted Eastern Michigan by four and staved off winless-in-conference Missouri by six. Kentucky may be 5-1 and own the best overall record in the SEC behind unbeaten Alabama and Georgia, but the Wildcats have left a number of doubts over those six games.
That much is evident in the Vegas line for Kentucky’s game this week at Mississippi State, where the Wildcats are a consensus 11-point underdog. While lines are set to drive action and not designed to be a prediction, that’s still a whopping number. This is a Mississippi State team that not too long ago was beaten by a combined score of 80-13 by Georgia and Auburn in back-to-back weeks, and Saturday will host Kentucky as a double-digit favorite.
That Wildcats schedule, though, does them no favors. Kentucky would probably be undefeated if they had the correct number of defenders on the field for two (or even one, to be honest) plays against Florida. But even against lower-tier opponents they’ve looked as shaky as a Keeneland patron who’s enjoyed a little too much single malt.
Which makes this week a big one for coach Mark Stoops’ team, which is trying to prove it belongs near the top of the SEC East. Get past Saturday, and every remaining game for the Wildcats is winnable, save the trip to Georgia. Starkville can be a tough place to play and Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is the real deal, but it’s hard to not like Kentucky here, especially against that big number.
1. Kentucky can make the Bulldogs one-dimensional
Again because of that schedule, the Wildcats defense is a bit underappreciated. Kentucky allows opponents an average of 92 rushing yards per game (good enough to rank third in the SEC), and linebacker Josh Allen is having an All-SEC type season with 6½ sacks. The Wildcats haven’t faced a dual-threat quarterback like Fitzgerald this season, but they’re built to stymie the run and force the Bulldogs to the air — which, as their passing average of 181 yards per game suggests, is not their strength.
2. Mississippi State isn’t easy to figure out, either
For all the talk about what a paper tiger (or wildcat, if you will), Kentucky is at 5-1, the truth of the matter is that Mississippi State is just as much of an enigma at 4-2. We thought the Bulldogs were for real after that rout of LSU, which then proceeded to have its own issues while the Bulldogs were roasted by Georgia and Auburn. The Bulldogs rolled up plenty of points last Saturday on BYU, which is awful. Both teams are in the same boat, with nice records but not a whole lot behind them, and this game shapes up as a contender-or-pretender matchup that tells us which squad is for real.
3. Stephen Johnson excels by not making mistakes
He may not be as heralded as his Mississippi State counterpart, Fitzgerald, but Stephen Johnson has quietly been solid for Kentucky since taking over the starting quarterback role last season. The Wildcats are 12-5 with the Grambling transfer either starting or playing a prominent relief role, and his career touchdown-to-interception ratio is second best in Kentucky history. He’s been picked off just three times in 155 pass attempts this season. Johnson is not always dazzling, but he’s almost always steady, and minimizing mistakes is a key to winning on the road.
4. Kentucky has won in this situation before
The fact that South Carolina is Kentucky’s biggest victory to this point speaks volumes about the Wildcats schedule. At the same time, the conditions Kentucky faced that night in Columbia — a raucous stadium and a bowl-caliber opponent — will be present again in Starkville, and the Wildcats handled them both back on Sept. 16 with remarkable ease. Defense and physicality tend to travel well. Kentucky presents both, and they’ve carried the Wildcats to this point, whether in Lexington or on the road.
Prediction: Kentucky 31, Mississippi State 28
Kentucky broke a seven-game losing streak to Mississippi State last season in Lexington, where Austin MacGinnis drilled a game-winning, 51-yard field goal with no time left on the clock. That victory proved crucial for the Wildcats, and another key game against the Bulldogs awaits Saturday. LSU’s recent resurgence has likely led Vegas to have some renewed faith in Mississippi State, and put an inflated number on a matchup that promises to be much closer in real life.