Mississippi State is off to its best start in more than a dozen years, yet hasn't looked overly impressive.
The Bulldogs would seem to have a good chance to finally do so against a one-win Kentucky team with an injured starting quarterback, though they've struggled to put away seemingly overmatched opponents before.
Hoping to come out of their bye week with a renewed focus, the 20th-ranked Bulldogs look to open with five straight wins Saturday when they visit the Wildcats, who are planning to rotate a couple of freshmen at QB.
Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0 SEC) hasn't played since defeating South Alabama 30-10 on Sept. 22, a victory that appeared to leave coach Dan Mullen more upset than pleased. The Bulldogs led 7-0 midway through the second quarter before slowly pulling away and neither Tyler Russell nor LaDarius Perkins had big performances.
Russell came in with eight touchdowns and no interceptions, and left with the same number of TDs and a pick. He completed 13 of 27 passes for 171 yards.
Perkins entered the game averaging 106.7 yards but finished with 69 -- 44 coming on one run.
"It was everything we didn't want to do in a game like this," Mullen said.
Although the offense sputtered, the veteran-led defense bounced back after being run over for 572 yards in a 30-24 victory over Troy the previous week. The Bulldogs kept the Jaguars out of the end zone until 4:14 remained and allowed 347 yards.
That performance, however, was against a South Alabama program that came in ranked 112th in the FBS in total offense.
"We're pleased with the win," Mississippi State linebacker Cameron Lawrence said. "But we definitely haven't played our best game."
Despite being less than satisfied with their efforts, the Bulldogs are off to their best start since winning their first eight games of the 1999 season. A matchup with a Kentucky team off to its worst start since opening 1-5 in 2005 could also help Mississippi State develop some swagger.
The Wildcats (1-4, 0-2), who are 12th in the SEC with 349.4 yards per game, are expected to alternate Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles at quarterback with Maxwell Smith out indefinitely due to a torn left ankle ligament that will require surgery.
Smith was injured on the second play of a 38-17 loss to No. 6 South Carolina last Saturday. Whitlow came in and did an admirable job early, helping build a 17-7 halftime lead, but the Wildcats managed 70 yards after the break. He finished 12 of 23 for 114 yards with two interceptions and was sacked six times.
Towles has yet to see the field because he was redshirted, but that label will be removed.
"It's going to take an effort of both of them," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. "And it could be right in the middle of the series. If it's not series to series, it could be play after play after play, switching them in and out, give them things that they both can do, give them a chance to go out and play and compete."
Whoever lines up under center won't have much of a ground game to lean on, as Kentucky ranks 105th in the FBS in rushing at 119.6 yards per game.
Russell will have a new weapon at his disposal in tight end Malcolm Johnson, expected to play for the first time this season after being sidelined with a pectoral injury. Johnson was fourth on the team with 206 receiving yards last year.
"His return is huge," Mullen said. "He hasn't played football since last April so it's not like he can just get back in there and go. Basically, his training camp starts now. Everyone else has already started the season, but he's a playmaker."
Johnson had 42 yards receiving and a TD in a 28-16 win at Kentucky on Oct. 29. Russell went 9 of 12 for 172 yards for the Bulldogs, winners of three in a row in the series.
Top 25 Overview
After a week off, Mississippi State hits the road to face a struggling Kentucky team that's losing games and key players at a dizzying pace. The Bulldogs are unbeaten but have sort of settled into a rut of playing down to their competition. They'd like to change that this weekend in the Bluegrass.