Welcome to Upset Alert, a weekly column about a Saturday favorite liable to get knocked off by the underdog.
A win at long last. Saturday saw 7.5-point underdog Arkansas knock off Ole Miss at home, as predicted last week. So we’ll try to keep the good mojo going in Week 8, which is surprisingly scarce in the upset candidate category.
Picking Texas A&M over Alabama seems like a fool’s errand. LSU, recharged under interim coach Ed Orgeron, is a bad matchup for 3-3 Ole Miss, especially in Death Valley. Auburn-Arkansas might be the closest game of the week, but the Tigers hold an edge because of their defense.
That leaves one easy, obvious upset pick on the table. Here’s why Kentucky, a 3-point home underdog, can take down stumbling Mississippi State this weekend.
3. Three-headed UK ground game
In three of the last four weeks, the Wildcats have cracked 200 yards rushing. The lone exception was against Alabama, which boasts the country’s top rushing defense. Kentucky is averaging 5.1 yards per carry on first down, which ranks 41st among all FBS teams, and the offense is averaging 5.34 yards per carry in four home games (34th nationally).
The headliner is still fleet-footed junior tailback Stanley “Boom” Williams, who’s averaging more than 7 yards per carry. Freshman Benjamin Snell has recently emerged as a nice power complement to Williams, which gives Kentucky a more balanced attack. While his passing still needs to improve, quarterback Stephen Johnson scrambled for a season-high 55 yards against Vanderbilt, a team that just held Georgia to 75 yards rushing last weekend.
Mississippi State has fielded one of the SEC’s better rushing defenses this season, and the team has been especially good at limiting big plays. The Bulldogs have allowed only 18 plays of 10-plus rushing yards, third fewest in the FBS. But they’ve been beatable in recent weeks. LSU, Auburn and Massachusetts all averaged at least 4 yards per carry against them.
2. Defensive improvement
Kentucky allowed 131 points in its first three games. In the three games since, the Wildcats have given up just 57, including holding Alabama to a season-low 34 points. The unit has improved on third down, in the red zone and at rushing the passer.
In fact, Kentucky has 10 sacks over its last three games, 3.5 of which are credited to sophomore linebacker Denzil Ware. He, Jordan Jones (the team’s leading tackler with 56) and defensive back Mike Edwards (8 PBUs in 2016) are among six Wildcats sophomores helping to orchestrate the recent turnaround.
Most concerning for Mississippi State will be Kentucky’s strides on third down. The Bulldogs are third-worst in the SEC in that category (33.33 conversion rate), ahead of only Vanderbilt and South Carolina — both teams Kentucky has recently beaten.
If the Wildcats can force third down and pressure young quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the game will play into their hands.
Mississippi State’s only win since Sept. 10 was a 47-35 stinker over Massachusetts. Kentucky is 3-1 in that same time frame. You’ve obviously got to look at quality of opponents — South Carolina and Vanderbilt are certainly not LSU and Auburn — but it’s pretty clear that neither team has been especially good or consistent at all this season.
The key difference: The Wildcats have something positive to show for their improving efforts. Mississippi State has come close — a three-point loss in Death Valley, a double-overtime defeat against BYU — but a meaningful victory has continually eluded Dan Mullen’s squad.
Playing at home, in a game crucial to its pursuit of bowl eligibility and coach Mark Stoops’ future in Lexington, the Wildcats should have incentive to play hard. They’ll ideally be healthier and well-rested coming off a bye week, whereas Mississippi State just made a trip to Provo, Utah.
As with Kentucky’s recent SEC games, this one shouldn’t be high-scoring. Look for the Wildcats to snag an early lead and then hold on for dear life in the second half.