clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

If Kentucky beats No. 1 Mississippi State, here's why

New, comments

Road trips for first-time No. 1s can be tenuous, but Mississippi State will hold most of the matchup advantages over Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). Can the Wildcats pull off a nearly incomprehensible upset? (Well, of course they can -- this is college football.)

In the last eight decades of college football, 44 programs have assumed the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll, from TCU, Cornell, and Boston College long ago to Alabama, Florida State, and Notre Dame far more recently. This fraternity had a membership of only 43 teams until Mississippi State's application was accepted this month.

As exciting as this time is for Mississippi State, the Starkville community, et cetera, the challenges have obviously only begun. Reaching No. 1 even once is hard. Over the past three decades, winning as a first-time No. 1 has been even harder.

Since 1984, eight programs have left home as the No. 1 team for their first time ever. Five lost in their first trips away from home.

  • 1984: No. 14 Michigan 22, No. 1 Miami 14
  • 1984: No. 1 BYU 24, Michigan 17 (in San Diego)
  • 1985: No. 17 Georgia 24, No. 1 Florida 3 (in Jacksonville)
  • 1988: No. 6 Miami 31, No. 1 Florida State 0
  • 1989: No. 4 Notre Dame 21, No. 1 Colorado 6 (in Miami)
  • 1990: No. 1 Virginia 49, Wake Forest 14
  • 2007: No. 9 Oklahoma 38, No. 1 Missouri 17 (in San Antonio)*
  • 2010: No. 1 Oregon 53, No. 24 USC 32

* Missouri technically wasn't a first-time No. 1. The Tigers had also held the top spot for one week in 1960 but lost before they could play a road game.

The full list, back to 1936.

Last week was a bye for Mississippi State, and as always, bye weeks are what you make of them. The optimist would say it's given the Bulldogs plenty of time to come down off of the No. 1 buzz and get back to business. The pessimist would say that MSU has had twice as long to pat itself on the back and get fat.

Bye weeks are in the eye of the beholder, but one thing is not: it's better to play Kentucky on the road than, say, an elite team. Of the five teams that lost above, all lost to ranked teams, and three lost to top-10 teams. Only one has fallen to an unranked team in this scenario: Wisconsin in 1952 (to Ohio State).

Mark Stoops is doing a solid job in Lexington. Kentucky had ranked 86th, 112th, and 97th in the F/+ rankings over the last three years and had gone a combined 4-20 in the last two; the Wildcats are 5-2 and 76th this year, and while they will need an upset to reach 6-6 -- their last two home games are against Mississippi State (No. 6 in F/+) and Georgia (No. 9), and their last three road games are against Louisville (No. 15), Missouri (No. 35), and Tennessee (No. 38) -- this season has represented a lovely step forward.

Even considering improvement, Kentucky beating Mississippi State would be a colossal upset. (Let's put it this way: Akron is one spot ahead of Kentucky in F/+, and Oregon is one spot below Mississippi State. Akron beating Oregon would be considered one of the biggest upsets in years, yes?) Mississippi State has a top-notch offensive line, an immovable defensive line, a Heisman candidate at quarterback, and one of the most efficient overall offenses in the country. The Bulldogs have earned their hype and have simply been much better than Kentucky.

Let's pretend for a moment that it does happen. This is still college football, after all. On Sunday morning, as the dust has settled in Lexington and the goalposts have been taken away and sawed to pieces, how are we breaking this one down? How did Kentucky take down No. 1?

Pass rush

Overall, Kentucky's pass rush has been only decent. The Wildcats rank 46th in Adj. Sack Rate, but that's mostly because they are passive on standard downs -- in must-pass situations, Kentucky pins its ears back. The Wildcats are 120th in standard-downs sack rate but fifth in passing-downs sack rate. There is no particular standout here, but ends Alvin Dupree (three sacks) and Za'Darius Smith (2.5) and all-or-nothing tackle Cory Johnson (2.5 sacks among just 3.5 tackles) lead the way on second- or third-and-long.

Meanwhile, Dak Prescott will take sacks. The Mississippi State quarterback has earned Heisman and All-American talk for his play-making ability, but like so many dual-threat quarterbacks, he will occasionally trust his legs a bit too much and get taken down. MSU is allowing an 11.5 percent sack rate on passing downs, though because of Prescott, the Bulldogs don't face too many passing downs.

UK will struggle to knock Mississippi State off schedule. The one-two punch of Prescott (96 non-sack carries for 639 yards) and Josh Robinson (98 for 689) is devastating, and Prescott has been able to keep defenses off-balance by completing 34 of 53 passes (64 percent) to Jameon Lewis, De'Runnya Wilson, and Gabe Myles on standard downs.

But even the most efficient teams still face passing downs a quarter of the time. The Wildcats must make Prescott pay when they get the chance, sacking him multiple times and forcing a couple of turnovers as well -- seven Wildcats have defensed at least three passes this year, led by corner Fred Tiller and safety A.J. Stamps.

Balance

Kentucky's offense is pretty bad on passing downs (99th in Passing Downs S&P+), but the Wildcats are also decent at avoiding them, and they accomplish that by using every inch of the field. Kentucky runs 59 percent of the time on standard downs -- almost exactly the national average -- and employs a variety of weapons. They've got efficiency backs (Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton, for whom 44 percent of carries have gone for at least five yards) and all-or-nothing guys (Patrick Towles, Braylon Heard).

They're just good enough at the run to steal yards via the pass. On standard downs, quarterback Patrick Towles has completed 52 of 71 passes (73 percent) to the foursome of Ryan Timmons, Demarco Robinson, Javess Blue, and Dorian Baker. Variety is a very good thing, and Kentucky has it.

Opponents tend to throw as much as possible on MSU, not because the Bulldogs are weak in pass defense but because they're outstanding in run defense. Kentucky will try to do a little bit of everything against MSU, and it could work for a while.

Bad things will happen on passing downs -- the Wildcats pass a disproportionately high amount of the time on second- or third-and-long, and it doesn't tend to go very well. But Kentucky will have a chance of staying on schedule and making some things happen.

Legs

Kentucky isn't very good in the special teams battle. The Wildcats rank just 93rd in Brian Fremeau's special teams efficiency ratings, dragged down by iffy place-kicking, punting, and punt returns.

The good news is that MSU isn't very good at those things either. The Bulldogs are 109th in field goal efficiency and 84th in punt returns. Kentucky is just about even with MSU in the field position game -- the Wildcats are averaging about a 4.2-yard advantage per possession in terms of starting field position (28th in the country), and the Bulldogs are at plus-5.1 yards (21st). And while MSU finishes drives a lot better because touchdowns negate the impact of field goal kicking, in an upset scenario, either the legs work out in Kentucky's favor, or at the very least, they cancel each other out.

***

When a coach recruits the way Mark Stoops has recently, and when he says and does a lot of good things and simply looks the part of a big-time, successful head coach, we become a little bit too hasty in declaring his work successful.

That Kentucky has already won five games this year represents a remarkable step forward for Stoops' UK program as a whole, but last week's disastrous trip to Baton Rouge proved what the numbers were already telling us: UK is rising but hasn't yet risen. For Kentucky to beat Mississippi State will require either an almost unforeseeable step forward (for UK) or backward (for MSU), but the script is in place and easy to understand. MSU would turn the ball over at times, and UK is good at forcing turnovers. MSU would destroy UK's offense on passing downs, but UK might be able to avoid passing downs. UK's kicking weaknesses are, for the most part, MSU's kicking weaknesses.

The matchups could be worse for Kentucky, and as Ohio State proved in 1952 (while coached by a young, salty head man named Woody Hayes), it is at the very least conceivable that UK could pull an upset in Lexington on Saturday. But it's important to realize just how profound and unlikely an upset would actually be.