Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) looks for running room around offensive lineman Deion Calhoun (61) while Aeris Williams (22) blocks Kentucky during the first half in Starkville Oct. 21, 2017. Saturday the game is in Lexington where the Wildcats hold an edge.

Before this football season began, most Mississippi State fans circled one September game on their Bulldogs’ calendar. And that, of course, was the Sept. 29 game with tradition-rich Florida when Dan Mullen returns to Starkville with his first Florida Gators.

The Bulldogs, fans knew, would be favored to win the first four games. That would set up a huge showdown with Mullen’s Gators.

There has been a slight change of plans.

Rick Cleveland

The Florida game and Mullen’s return will still be huge, but there’s a more difficult chore seven days before: Kentucky’s undefeated Wildcats at Lexington, which has rarely been a particularly hospitable place for State.

Without question, Kentucky will be State’s most challenging foe to date and the best team the Bulldogs will play before Auburn comes to Starkville on Oct. 6.

Want proof?

Two weeks ago, Kentucky went to Florida and defeated the Gators 27-16, their first victory over Florida in 31 years. And it was no fluke. The Wildcats physically whipped Florida, rushing for 303 yards and controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Benny Snell, UK’s hard-running tailback, rushed for 175 yards. Strange as it sounds – and after 31 years it does sound strange – Kentucky just physically whipped Florida.

State has physically whipped everybody it has played this season. So this figures to be as close to an old-fashioned, smash-mouth SEC football game as we see these days. Kentucky loves to run the football. So does State. Both teams pride themselves on physical line play, winning the game at the line of scrimmage.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said as much Thursday.

“This will definitely be a line of scrimmage game on both sides,” Stoops said. “It’s always important. … Both teams can run the ball effectively. Heck, they’ve run it for 311 (a game)? We’re in the 280-range. Both teams can run the football, and when you can run the football it opens up opportunities.”

That’s true. But for all State’s gaudy offensive numbers, the greatest strength of this Bulldogs team is the defensive front. You ask me, State, led by Jeffery Simmons, is as good as anyone (including Alabama) across the front line. Kentucky will challenge that with an experienced offensive line that averages about 310 pounds from tackle to tackle. The Wildcats bludgeoned Florida and they won’t change their personality for State.

The build-up to Saturday’s game is similar to last year when Kentucky visited State on Oct. 21. State came into the game with a 4-2 record. Kentucky was 5-1. State led 10-7 before Nick Fitzgerald scored on a 40-yard run on a fourth-and-one play late in the first half to make it 17-7. State thoroughly dominated the Wildcats in the second half to win going away, 45-7.

Perhaps the most telling stat from that game: Snell rushed for only 18 yards. The biggest play was as obvious as it was impressive. On that fourth-and-one play with just over a minute to go in the half, Kentucky appeared to have Fitzgerald stopped at the line of scrimmage. And then Fitzgerald did what Fitzgerald does, which was escape and race for the touchdown. It was all State thereafter.

Two years ago, however, Kentucky defeated State 40-38 on a last-second field goal at Lexington. Snell rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown to help the Wildcats overcome a 116-yard rushing and two-touchdown performance from Fitzgerald.

Home field has often been huge in this series. State leads the series 23-22 overall, but Kentucky holds a 14-9 advantage in games played at Lexington.

No. 14 State is a 10-point favorite over unranked Kentucky, which surely would vault into the polls with a victory.

A prediction?

Both teams are physical but the difference is team speed. State is just faster. Bulldogs, 30-20.

And then they can start thinking about Florida and Mullen’s return.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.