Another week, another seemingly must-win football game for the Kentucky Wildcats, who will host Mississippi State on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium in a battle of two teams with similar recruiting profiles.
The Bulldogs — in their eighth season under Coach Dan Mullen — have finished with one of the nation’s top 25 recruiting classes in each of the past four cycles: 25th in 2016, 16th in 2015 and 25th in 2013 (they were No. 38 nationally in 2014).
Mississippi State has almost an identical number of three- and four-star recruits on its roster as UK (see “Numbers game” below), and the Cats will be looking to snap a seven-game losing skid against MSU on Saturday (UK is 0-7 against Mullen).
Here’s a breakdown of where Mississippi State’s players were ranked as recruits, with some comparisons to how they stack up — recruiting-wise — to UK’s roster (all rankings from Rivals.com):
Mississippi State has one five-star player (true freshman defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons), 13 four-star players, 53 three-star players and 11 two-star players on its roster.
By comparison: UK has one five-star recruit (true freshman offensive lineman Landon Young), 14 four-star recruits, 49 three-star recruits and 10 two-star recruits on its roster this season.
Mississippi State has several injuries this week that could affect personnel Saturday night, but here’s what its projected starting lineups on offense and defense look like for the game: six four-star recruits, 13 three-star recruits and three two-star recruits. Three regular Bulldogs’ starters who are questionable this week are RG Deion Calhoun (2 stars), RB Brandon Holloway (3 stars) and safety Kivon Coman (3 stars). Those players’ expected replacements match their recruiting star rankings.
By comparison: Among UK’s expected starters (going by last week’s lineup and this week’s outlook), the Cats have three four-star starters (TE C.J. Conrad, RB Boom Williams and safety Mike Edwards), 14 three-star starters, four two-star starters (including QB Stephen Johnson) and one starter who was not ranked in high school (LT Cole Mosier, who returned two weeks ago after missing time with an ankle injury).
Both teams will start quarterbacks Saturday night that were considered two-star recruits by Rivals.com: Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald and Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson.
Fitzgerald has the unenviable task of following Dak Prescott — now an NFL rookie and the starting QB for the Dallas Cowboys. A 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore from Richmond Hill, Ga., Fitzgerald had scholarship offers from only two schools — Mississippi State and Middle Tennessee — coming out of high school in the class of 2014.
He’s done some good things for the Bulldogs over his first six games as a starter, completing 91 of 165 passes for 998 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions, while also proving to be a ground threat (431 rushing yards and two TDs).
Fitzgerald scorched South Carolina for 195 rushing yards — a school record for a QB — earlier this season in just his second start, and his playing style has given UK fits in recent years.
UK’s Stephen Johnson — a two-star recruit out of junior college last year — is 52 of 90 passing for 628 yards, three TDs, two INTs and one rushing touchdown.
The only player on Mississippi State’s roster ranked as a five-star recruit coming out of high school is true freshman defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, who was the subject of much controversy before his college career even began.
Simmons — a 6-foot-4, 310-pound player from Macon, Miss. — was videotaped striking a woman in March and was allowed to enroll at Mississippi State with only a one-game suspension to start the season. That decision led some to criticize the Bulldogs’ program.
Simmons made his college debut against South Carolina in Week 2, recording four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble in the Bulldogs’ victory. He has 13 tackles on the season.