LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky and Mississippi State have spent
the last few years bumping into each other while knocking against
the glass ceiling at the top of the Southeastern Conference.
The two programs have tried to make inroads on SEC powers like
No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama, with occasional success.
Yet the key to getting closer to the top of the nation's
toughest conference than the bottom isn't strictly reliant on how
the second-level programs do against the big boys, but also on how
they do against each other. Which explains why Kentucky coach Rich
Brooks is calling Saturday's game against the Bulldogs the most
important of the season.
"I think that when you are in the lower half of the league
historically, to get to the upper half, you not only have to knock
off some of those big guys, but you have to beat the guys that are
like you," Brooks said. "And Mississippi State and Kentucky have
been like each other for quite a while, and the team that wins has
an edge up of being able to climb that ladder a little bit."
It's a ladder the Wildcats (4-3, 1-3) have steadily climbed the
last few years, and a win over the Bulldogs (3-5, 1-3) would almost
assure Kentucky of a fourth straight bowl berth for the first time
in school history.
And while Brooks views the two programs as relative equals,
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen doesn't necessarily agree,
seeing the Wildcats as a model of sorts for his team to follow.
"They've learned how to get to bowl games, how to win tough
games," he said. "So we're going to have our hands full."
So will the Wildcats, who have struggled against physical teams
like Mississippi State, who gave No. 1 Florida all it could handle
a week ago before falling 29-19.
Mullen ended up getting reprimanded by the SEC for criticizing
the officiating in the loss to the Gators. He says he's ready to
move on, though the Bulldogs may be weary from another close loss
to quality opponent. The Florida game was Mississippi State's
fourth near miss this year, joining losses to LSU (30-26), Georgia
Tech (42-31) and Houston (31-24).
Mullen has praised his team's resiliency, and the Bulldogs will
need it in a rivalry that's been even over the last decade. The
teams have split the last 10 meetings, and each school won on the
other's home field in the last two seasons, including a 31-14
Mississippi State win in Lexington in 2007.
It's a game that took some of the swagger out of a Kentucky team
that flirted with the Top 10 that season, though the Wildcats
repaid the favor with an ugly 14-13 win in Starkville last fall,
the memory of that 2007 game is still fresh in the minds of most
"If they think they can come in here and win based on what they
did here two years ago or how they played against Florida, they'll
have another thing coming," said offensive lineman Christian
Maybe, but the Wildcats have struggled against physical teams
like the Bulldogs and will be hobbled defensively. Cornerback
Trevard Lindley will likely miss his fourth straight game with an
ankle injury, though middle linebacker Micah Johnson is expected to
be available after tweaking his knee in a win over Louisiana-Monroe
The Wildcats will need him to slow down Mississippi State's
running game, which is averaging over 203 yards per game behind
running back Anthony Dixon. Kentucky has had trouble stopping
teams, giving up 174 yards per game on a ground, a number Mullen
said may have had more to do with Kentucky's brutal schedule than
how the Wildcats actually played.
"They've given up a bunch of yards to Florida, Auburn and
Alabama, but the other games they've held their own against the run
game," Mullen said. "Sometimes statistically you can get skewed
on where you're ranked, because of who you've played. Their body of
work has been pretty good."
So is Mississippi State's. The Bulldogs may be the best 3-5 team
in the country. Yet Brooks knows it's time for the Wildcats to
start winning the game's they're supposed to win. Kentucky will
enter as a slight favorite.
"You look (at your schedule) and say you can beat this team and
that team, but you have to beat this team and this team," Brooks
said. "Guess what, they are looking at you the same way."
The school is asking fans to wear black as part of a Halloween
night promotion. It's color that would be appropriate for a wake if
the Wildcats can't win, and the players know it.
"We know what's at stake," said defensive lineman Corey
Peters. "We'll be ready."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)