Perhaps it is solely this writer's perspective, but this matchup feels like it is one of possibly the two teams in the SEC that have been discussed the least in 2015. There have been some moments that have slotted these teams into the national conversation like Kentucky's game against Auburn last Thursday or Mississippi State's SEC opener against LSU, but after early losses to LSU and Florida respectively dented divisional title hopes for both teams. A decent season still is on the table for both teams but this game could be looked at as a springboard to a potential 8 or 9 win for either team.
The Bulldogs sit at 5-2 with games to come at Missouri, Arkansas and a home game against Ole Miss in a series the home team nearly always wins. It's not unforeseeable for the Bulldogs to win all of those games and drop the remaining game against Alabama to finish at 9-3. Given that this season was expected to be a bit of a rebuilding season by most people, nine wins would be an outstanding effort.
For Kentucky, bowl eligibility was seen as a target in the preseason and wins over South Carolina and Missouri have put them within two games of that goal at 4-2 entering the last two weekends of October. But getting to six wins and a likely trip to Birmingham at this point would be a seeming disappointment. After this week's game, it's tough to look at any of Kentucky's remaining games and say they are not winnable. Likely wins remain over Charlotte and Vanderbilt while rivalry games against Tennessee and Louisville are winnable to go along with a likely loss at Georgia. Win the two likely wins, split the toss up rivalry games, and a potential win over the Western division Bulldogs sets up an eight win season that would surpass practically anyone's expectations for the 2015 Wildcats.
1Who Can Establish the Run? Neither team has been great at running the ball, but rank similarly in rushing statistics. Both teams are between 98th and 102nd nationally in rushing yards per game. In SEC play, however, the Bulldogs rushing yards fall to rank them 109th in conference play while Kentucky's running game improves in SEC play. The Wildcats rank seventh in the SEC in yards per game in SEC play, placing them between Auburn and South Carolina. Whether either team can get the running game going with Stanley "Boom" Williams for Kentucky or Ashton Shumpert or Dak Prescott for Mississippi State could go a long way in determining the victor Saturday evening.
2Pass to Win. Being that both teams have struggled to run the ball, it's reasonable to assume both have been decent at throwing the ball and that assumption would be correct. Both teams rank in the top half of SEC teams in most passing statistics and have had to throw to try to set up the run. Fred Ross leads the Bulldogs in receptions with 39 and is second in yards (422) after De'Runnya Wilson. Wilson is averaging nearly 15 yards per catch and is second in the SEC with five touchdown receptions. Garrett Johnson leads Kentucky in yards, but look for fellow sophomore Jeff Badet. Badet only has 16 catches on the season, but nine of those have been in the last two games after hauling in only a single ball in three of the Wildcats first four games.
3Strength vs. Weakness. Mississippi State ranks 22nd nationally in sacks under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz led by defensive lineman AJ Jefferson with four and linebacker Richie Brown with three and a half. Kentucky, meanwhile, has allowed 19 sacks which comes in 104th nationally. Within the SEC, Kentucky is tied with Texas A&M in sacks allowed with only Florida allowing more (20). Even with their adjusted sack rate, the Wildcats rank 105th in the country. After being sacked on the fourth down of the game ending drive in last Thursday's game against Auburn, Kentucky's offensive line will be looking for a bounce back game against Mississippi State. With the success the Bulldogs have had in getting to the quarterback in 2015, will Patrick Towles be able to stay off the turf and get the ball to his receivers?
4Take Care of the Ball. Both of these teams have negative turnover margins for 2015, but that seems to be as much a result of both teams failing to take the ball away. The two teams are bringing up the rear in the SEC in turnovers gained as the Wildcats have only picked up seven turnovers and the Bulldogs six turnovers gained ranks dead last. As for turnovers lost, Kentucky has thrown seven interceptions while Prescott has yet to throw an interception for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have not been able to hang onto the ball though as they have lost seven fumbles including a pair in each of the Southern Miss, Northwestern State and Texas A&M games. Considering the low amount of turnovers forced by both teams, any turnovers could be very detrimental in Saturday's game.
5Series History. This game offers one of the SEC's permanent cross divisional matchups and the series has been a close one. Since first playing in 1914, 42 games have been played in the series and the teams are even at 21 wins apiece. After losing 13 of the first 18 games in the series--including eight straight games between 1958 and 1990, Mississippi State has won the last six games. Kentucky's last win in the series was a 14-13 game in Starkville in Sylvester Croom's last season, 2008.
This should be a fairly clean game with a bunch of passes. The Vegas line (per oddsshark.com), the Bulldogs are favored by 11.5 with an average over/under of 56, so the sports books are projecting an approximate 34-22 win for Mississippi State. That line seems slightly high, but I've been higher on the Wildcats than most people that follow the SEC all season. I would see this game within a touchdown either way, but the Bulldogs will pull out the win. Mississippi State 38, Kentucky 31