John Clay: Kentucky needs to reel in Miss. State

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 23, 2013 

Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen on the sidelines in the second quarter of the Mississippi State at Kentucky football game at Commonwealth Stadium, in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 6, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

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After Kentucky's four losses against four straight ranked teams, you could focus on the gap between the currently have-not Cats and college football's host of haves.

With Mark Stoops' troops visiting Mississippi State for a Thursday night ESPN game, better to focus on the gap between the Cats and the Starkville Bulldogs.

That gap needs bridging first.

To be sure, the same could be said about Kentucky and Vanderbilt, what with UK suffering successive thumpings of 38-8 and 40-0 to the once-hapless Commodores over the past two seasons.

Mississippi State carries a four-game win streak over Kentucky into Thursday's tilt, however. MSU head coach Dan Mullen has never lost to Kentucky, beating the Cats during Rich Brooks' final season in Lexington, then stringing together three straight victories over Brooks' successor, Joker Phillips.

Given that (a) Kentucky and Mississippi State are "permanent" inter-divisional SEC opponents and have played every year since 1990, and (b) the two programs are in similar positions in the conference pecking order, this recent rash of Maroon domination has not been good for the boys in Blue.

It's also historically rare. Before MSU's current win streak, the Bulldogs held a 10-9 advantage over the last 19 face-offs. Neither side had won more than three straight games since 1990. Kentucky had not won more than two in a row.

Meanwhile, State is locked in a division traditionally dominated by Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Kentucky occupies a division traditionally dominated by Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, or at least until the Vols' recent drop that paved the way for a South Carolina surge under Steve Spurrier.

Mississippi State has been to the SEC title game once, back in 1998 when Jackie Sherrill's Bulldogs lost 24-14 to Tee Martin and eventual national champs Tennessee. Kentucky has never come close to making the league title game. In fact, UK hasn't posted a winning conference record since 1977.

As for the teams' current standing, the two programs have a similar blueprint. State was able to put its plan into action first.

In 2008, then-Mississippi State AD Greg Byrne, formerly the associate AD at UK under Mitch Barnhart, hired the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida to be his head coach. That was Mullen.

State went 5-7 in the Pennsylvania native's first season as a head coach, but did finish the season with a 41-27 win over 25th-ranked Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs have gone 27-18 since that first year, with wins in the Gator Bowl — over Michigan — and the Music City Bowl.

In 2012, Barnhart hired the defensive coordinator under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State to be the Kentucky head coach. That was Stoops.

Kentucky is 1-5 in the Ohio native's first season as a head coach and fresh off a 48-7 loss to top-ranked Alabama that showed just how far the Cats have to climb to even see the top of the conference mountain.

(Not to worry, Arkansas and its first-year coach, Bret Bielema, suffered a similar reality check last Saturday, losing 52-0 to the Tide.)

No need to worry about that right now. In Stoops' rebuilding process, baby steps are required. To its credit, after falling behind 21-0 at South Carolina this month, the Cats regrouped and made a fourth-quarter charge before falling 35-28.

"We talk about one week at a time, and going this week playing Mississippi State on the road is just a different challenge," Stoops said Monday. "(Mississippi State is a) very good team, well-coached team. Again, I think they're very physical. Team that's won plenty of football games the past two, three, four years.

"To play on a Thursday night, I think they're going to be very motivated, as we are to get our first SEC win."

And Kentucky's first win over Mississippi State since 2008.

There's a gap that needs to be closed.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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