Kentucky prepares to host No. 1 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs have won five straight against the Wildcats to draw within a game of tying the series entering Saturday's 42nd meeting. But four of the past six games between the schools have been decided by a touchdown or less, including MSU's 28-22 win last year in Starkville with the Bulldogs having to make a late defensive stand.
Both teams' fortunes have surged dramatically since then, possibly setting the stage for another competitive game.
The Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) enter with the nation's top ranking and a Heisman Trophy hopeful in quarterback Dak Prescott. Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) meanwhile is a surprising East division contender after being picked to finish last.
Another tight game might be looming.
''There are a lot of similarities with both teams,'' MSU coach Dan Mullen said this week. ''In our game against them last year, it came right down to the final play. They have a lot of star players back from last year, and we have a lot of guys back too. So I know they are going to have a lot of confidence.''
Kentucky rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to get within 29 yards of possibly tying the game late before turning it over on downs. The Wildcats went on to a second straight 2-10 finish, but that contest offered a bright spot that they've turned into their best start in years.
Mississippi State knows something about turnarounds as well. The Bulldogs followed their Kentucky victory with three straight losses against ranked SEC foes, a skid that seems like a distant memory with their nine-game winning streak.
Highlighting MSU's run are three straight wins over LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn, all ranked eighth or better at the time. The Bulldogs are coming off a bye with their first No. 1 ranking and sights set on winning the West title, impressive for a team projected to finish mid-pack in that tough division.
''If you look at their quarterback and their team it's not a real big surprise,'' said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, whose team seeks only its fourth win in 15 meetings against No. 1 teams.
''I noticed that a year ago. I noticed how big they were and how long and they're developed. ... They put stress on you across the board.''
Here are other things to look for as Kentucky hosts top-ranked Mississippi State:
TRIPLE-THREAT PRESCOTT: While passing and running have thrust Prescott into the Heisman discussion, he's also a threat to catch the ball. He caught a TD pass last season against the Wildcats in Starkville and has two career games with TDs passing, running and throwing. All three career TD receptions have come on passes from wide receiver Jameon Lewis.
NO BAYOU HANGOVER: Kentucky's worst performance this season at LSU resulted in an ugly end to its three-game winning streak. But the Wildcats' mentality is more confident than their recent past, and quarterback Patrick Towles believes the Wildcats will be able to move on from that disappointment. ''It hurt for about a day,'' Towles said of the loss, ''and if it keeps hurting, you've got to play a different sport.''
DEFENSE: Kentucky has been solid defending the pass but will have its hands full stopping Prescott, who has thrown for 1,478 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has also run for 576 yards and 8 TDs, which could create another headache for the Wildcats' run defense if they don't account for him there. On the flip side the Bulldogs' secondary is allowing 308.3 yards per game, a weakness that Towles and his receivers aim to exploit after a disappointing effort against LSU.
INSIDE THE 20: Both offenses have been effective inside the red zone at better than 80 percent efficiency. But Kentucky must find an opening against MSU's red-zone defense that leads all Power 5 conference schools and is second nationally at 58 percent. Opponents have scored on 11 of 19 trips inside MSU's 20 but with only six touchdowns. Ranked teams have only gotten four TDs against MSU.
WELL-RESTED: Mississippi State faces Kentucky for the fourth straight year coming off a bye, a break that has benefited the Bulldogs in Lexington. They earned back-to-back wins here in 2011 and 2012 by margins of 12 and 13 points respectively, the most lopsided outcomes in recent meetings between the schools.