In 1992, the Mississippi State-Kentucky game became one of the interdivisional rivalries in the SEC. The 23rd edition of that game is probably the biggest yet.
Most of that comes down to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 for the first time in the history of the program, and are legitimate players for the first college football playoff. This game will officially launch the second half of Mississippi State's season -- a six-game stretch that will see whether the first half was a sign of things to come or whether it was another one of the Bulldogs' promising starts not followed up with results. The last win against Auburn made it look increasingly like the former, but the Bulldogs are likely to be haunted by the possibility of the latter at least until the trip to Tuscaloosa in mid-November.
Kentucky, meanwhile, is trying to figure out where it stands in the SEC this year. A bowl will probably mean an upset in Lexington (Mississippi State and Georgia are the only two remaining home opponents) or a road win in games where they will at best be a slight favorite, depending on how the season unfolds. (The only games that look like they could possibly fall into that category are at Missouri, at Tennessee and at Louisville -- and regardless of how poorly the season goes for the Volunteers, it's still hard to wrap one's head around the idea of this year's Wildcats team being favored in Knoxville.) Even if Kentucky can't pull off the victory on Saturday, a solid performance in this game could indicate that the postseason is more likely than not.
1We're No. 1. Because of when Mississippi State's bye week fell, the Bulldogs actually haven't played a game since they've been ranked at No. 1. I'm not necessarily one that buys the notion that teams play substantially better against the No. 1 team than against other teams -- I think most teams play hard to win every game -- but there's probably some mental pressure that comes with being the top-rated team in the country. Mississippi State as a program has never dealt with that pressure before (though Mullen knows something about it from his Florida days), so it will be interesting to see if it has any effect on the team.
2On the Rebound. On the other hand, Kentucky is coming off a gut-punch end to its already long-shot hopes of contending in the SEC this year. It's not just that the loss to LSU puts them behind the eight-ball in the East -- although, with games against Mississippi State and Georgia still on the schedule, it does -- but it was also the manner in which the Wildcats were eviscerated by the Tigers. Patrick Towles had his worst game of the season by just about any measurement you want to use, and the defense continued to get overpowered by anything approaching a decent offensive attack (and it's generous to call the LSU offense "decent"). If Kentucky can bounce back and win this game, it would put them right back in the conversation -- but the game in Baton Rouge raises grave doubts about whether that's possible.
3The Rivalry. Regularly televised by CBS or not, this is one of the great historical rivalries of SEC history, making it clear why it was preserved when the interdivision match-ups were created back in 1992. Or not. Kentucky was actually the SEC East team that Mississippi State had played the third-most times before the split (19), well behind Florida (46) and Tennessee (37). State was the fifth most-played SEC West team for Kentucky -- or, aside from expansion teams Arkansas and Texas A&M, the least-played team -- behind LSU (42), Ole Miss (35), Alabama (32) and Auburn (26). LSU was Kentucky's other permanent rival when there were two interdivision opponents that didn't rotate -- yes, the "horror" of only playing one rotating interdivision team is actually not new. But a variety of factors made all those other teams unworkable for the Wildcats, in particular, so Mississippi State and Kentucky were kind of stuck with each other. That said, the series is pretty evenly matched. Kentucky leads, 21-20, at least until Saturday, and six of the last nine games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
4Strength vs. Weakness. Here's something that should mildly terrify you if you're a Kentucky fan: Mississippi State runs the ball really well. The Bulldogs are second in the SEC on a per-game basis (264.3) and fourth on a per-carry basis (5.5). That happens to be the weak spot of the Kentucky defense -- as LSU showed. The Wildcats are 11th in the conference defending the run when it comes to the per-game figures (173.6) and tied for ninth in yards per carry (4.2). Particularly when you consider that Kentucky has only been the victim of one blowout win, that's a concerning sign about the defense. The marquee match-up might be Mississippi State's air attack, which is rated in second in the SEC in terms of efficiency, against the Wildcats' third-rated passing efficiency defense. But if the Bulldogs can run the ball virtually at will, that might not matter very much.
5Red Zone. At first, it's easy to look at both of these red-zone offenses and conclude that they're terrible. The Bulldogs are tied for last in the SEC, converting 80 percent of their possessions inside the 20-yard line into points, and Kentucky is 12th, doing so at an 81.8 percent rate. But Mississippi State is actually tied for fourth in the conference at getting touchdowns in the red zone, which they do 70 percent of the time, while Kentucky comes in dead last at 50 percent. Yes, that's worse than Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, Mississippi State is tops in the SEC in defense in terms of overall red-zone scoring (57.9 percent) and touchdowns (31.5 percent), while Kentucky has stopped opponents on just two of their 21 trips inside the red-zone, with 13 of those (61.9 percent) going for touchdowns.
THREE TO WATCH
Jojo Kemp, RB, Kentucky: Kemp has been quiet since his breakout performance against South Carolina, when he rushed for 131 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries, many of them out of the wildcat formation. Since then, Kemp has just 14 yards on 10 carries. One of the other Kentucky running backs might be able to carry the ball, but UK needs someone to take this game over if they're going to win -- and Kemp is the one most qualified to do that.
Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: There's a reason that Prescott has gone from a dark-horse Heisman contender to a front-line candidate for the trophy. He's the second-rated SEC quarterback in terms of passing efficiency (minimum 50 attempts), completing 61.5 percent of his passes and throwing 14 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. Prescott might not pile up the passing yardage to the extent that other quarterbacks do, but when he does pass the ball, he's lethal. He's also averaging 96 rushing yards a game, good for fifth in the SEC regardless of position.
Preston Smith, DL, Mississippi State: Smith had two interceptions in the first two games of the season -- note his position again -- and while he hasn't continued to be a pick-off artist, Smith has remained a disruptive force as the Bulldogs move into conference play. He totaled 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks over his games at LSU and against Texas Aa&M and Auburn, and had a combined six quarterback hurries in the last two games of that stretch.
There are only a couple of reasons -- other than a really bad afternoon -- to think that Kentucky will pull this one off, both of them falling under the dreaded intangibles category: The Bulldogs are a bit full of themselves after having gotten to No. 1, or Lexington is an inherently dangerous place now that the Wildcats are back at something approaching full speed. Sure, you can craft a plausible on-the-field narrative for how the upset might happen, but it still falls into either the "bad afternoon" category or one of the intangibles catching up to the Bulldogs. It's not hard to see Mississippi State losing a game before the season is out, but this is probably not going to be the one. Mississippi State 37, Kentucky 27