LEXINGTON (AP) — Facing an unranked opponent for a change doesn’t necessarily mean that Kentucky has it easier.
But after four straight losses to ranked opponents, including a 48-7 drubbing by No. 1 Alabama 10 days ago, the Wildcats might find Mississippi State a more manageable opponent.
Kentucky (1-5, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) returns from a bye to face the Bulldogs (3-3, 0-2) on Thursday night. Wildcats coach Mark Stoops considers this matchup just as challenging because both schools are pursuing their first league victories.
One upside of that tough stretch of games is that Kentucky players are eager to apply what they learned against the Bulldogs. The week off came in handy in helping the Wildcats enter physically and mentally refreshed following the most grueling series of opponents in program history.
“I think it should help us going into this game,” Stoops said Monday about the bye week’s timing. “I think our preparation has been very good. I feel like the team is in a good place right now.
“I feel like we’re getting our legs back up underneath us. I feel like we’re getting a little bit healthier, and we’ve had some good work, so that should be good.”
After Thursday’s prime-time appearance against the Bulldogs, Kentucky hosts FCS Alabama State for homecoming on Nov. 2 before hosting resurgent No. 5 Missouri (7-0) a week later.
Though Kentucky faces a tough road in its rebuilding process, Stoops said this upcoming stretch could show what kind of progress the Wildcats are making in what they’re calling “the second season.”
Stoops said that Alabama “was a tough game and we’re going to watch it, we’re going to correct our mistakes and hold everybody accountable. But after that, let’s get ready for the next half of the season and in particular get ready for the next game, which is Mississippi State.”
The Wildcats head in a little bit healthier at key spots.
Sophomore quarterback Jalen Whitlow recovered enough from an ankle injury sustained against Alabama to practice this week, though he’ll likely back up Maxwell Smith.
“Jalen’s worked really hard to get back to where I think he’s going to be an option on Thursday,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said on Monday.
Senior defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree could also be available after sitting out the Alabama games with a pectoral muscle injury. While his presence wouldn’t have helped against a powerhouse Crimson Tide offense that rolled up 668 yards including 299 rushing, Dupree’s return against MSU certainly boosts Kentucky’s strategy no matter what capacity he is used.
Though Mississippi State ranks 11th of the league’s 14 teams in total offense, its 457.5 yards-per-game average is 105 yards better than the last-place Wildcats (352.3).
Dupree said watching the Alabama game from the sidelines was hard but that he has learned from the absence and is ready to move forward — a prospect that obviously pleased defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.
“He’s one of our best, if not our best player,” Eliot said, “so I think to have him back will have a huge impact on everything we do on defense.”
Mississippi State is coming off an unimpressive 21-20 victory over Bowling Green on Oct. 12. The Bulldogs have some promising young players — like sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott and sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney — but have been inconsistent on both sides of the ball.
“I think we have a lot of guys that want to win, desperately want to win, and are learning how to do it within the team setting,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
The Wildcats got Mullen’s attention with competitve games against South Carolina and Florida earlier this season.
“You watch their team and they’re accomplishing an awful lot,” Mullen said. “Their guys are playing hard for four quarters, buying into their system. And you see a lot of growth and development on a team that looks like a very young football team.”
Stoops said one key for his team will be to not fall behind early.
“I think it’s no secret any time you’re playing a team that’s struggled a little bit like we have … they’re going to want to get off to a fast start and put a dagger in us early,” Stoops said. “We have to go out and offset that and play and execute well to start the game.”