All Kentucky football fans want to beat Louisville. And we know how much ending the losing streak to Tennessee would mean.
But the University of Kentucky's true rival might be Mississippi State.
With the Bulldogs as UK's permanent opponent from the West Division, the two teams face off every year. They're in similar positions on the Southeastern Conference totem pole: two programs without a lot of tradition trying to scratch and claw their way up.
The games are usually close, and the outcome often determines how the teams' respective seasons will end up.
Former Kentucky coach Rich Brooks might have saved his job in 2006 when the Cats followed up a 49-0 loss at LSU by knocking off the Bulldogs 34-31 in Starkville. Sylvester Croom returned the favor the following season with a 31-14 win that sparked MSU to its first bowl bid in seven years.
The Cats won another close one in Starkville in 2008, 14-13, and Dan Mullen's first State team generated a ton of late-season momentum by beating the Cats 31-24 in Commonwealth Stadium last Halloween.
"I said earlier to have a good or great season you've got to beat Louisville. Well, it's the same thing for us two teams," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. "To have a great season, you've got to beat your common opponent in the West. We've been back and forth. They've won up here the last couple of times, we've won down there the last couple of times. Hopefully it continues that way."
When the Cats and Bulldogs hook up, there's typically not a lot of fancy stuff, just good old-fashioned, physical SEC football. Don't be fooled by Mullen's spread offense; Mississippi State likes to come right at its opponents with a punishing ground game. Anthony Dixon racked up 252 rushing yards against the Wildcats last season.
"I honestly believe it's a rivalry," UK senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. "It's a newly formed one, really since I've been here. The visiting team has been hitting the home team in the mouth. The next year they hit us in the mouth, we hit them in the mouth."
UK defensive line coach David Turner said the Cats need to avoid the slow starts and big early deficits that have plagued them the past month.
"This is going to be a bloody game," Turner said. "It's going to be 'Here we come; stop us if you can; if you can't, so be it.' That's the mentality we've got to have. We can't afford to keep coming out and giving up 14, 21 points and get in a hole. It catches up with you. It did last week (in a 44-31 loss to Georgia). It's vital for us to have a fast start and get a little more confidence."
Mullen said he's taken notice of UK's ability to come from behind.
"Their kids have a lot of confidence and they have been used to winning the last few years, so they're going to play for four quarters," Mullen said. "They have fallen behind in some games, but they hang in there, battle back and have figured out ways to win some of those games. That's what makes them a dangerous team."
Saturday, October 30, 2010 Lexington Herald-Leader | kentucky.com