The Bulldogs jump back into SEC play after playing their final non-conference game, and it begins a very difficult back half of the schedule. Kentucky certainly isn’t the toughest of opponents, and this one wraps up a four-game homestand, but MSU needs to have itself in good position entering the final five games. This is a Thursday game, 12 days after the Bowling Green contest.
Kentucky Wildcats (Oct. 24, in Starkville)
• Conference: SEC
• 2012 record: 2-10 (0-8, 7th Eastern Division)
• Coach: Mark Stoops (first season)
• Returning starters: 10 (4 offense, 6 defense)
• Last meeting: MSU, 27-14 (Oct. 6, 2012, in Lexington)
• On the Web: ukathletics.com
It’s a fresh start in Lexington with Stoops and the strong staff he has in place. More than 50,000 fans showed up for the spring game, and UK has been tearing it up on the recruiting trail. How much all of that will help for the 2013 season is another matter, but Stoops is off to a good start.
Among other tall orders, he’s trying to rev up an offense that last season averaged just 315 yards per game, which ranked 113th in the country, and 17.9 points per game (116th). The passing game was especially bad, with a passing efficiency rating of 108.62 (111th). Stoops has plenty of options at quarterback, with all three starting candidates having game experience. Maxwell Smith started three of the first five games last year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury; Jalen Whitlow started the final seven games; and highly recruited Patrick Towles saw action in five games.
Whitlow completed 54 percent of his passes for 801 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The sophomore also has the best wheels of the three, having rushed for 206 yards and three TDs. Coming out of the spring, coaches were elusive about who had a leg up in the competition, and that’ll be a hot topic through preseason camp.
Something UK has done pretty well in recent years is run the ball, although it averaged just 138.8 yards per game last fall. Leading rusher Raymond Sanders returns; he rushed for 669 yards and five TDs while splitting carries with Jonathan George. A big loss up front is All-American guard Larry Warford, and the Wildcats return three starters on the offensive line. Depth at receiver is a big concern.
Stoops hired former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who coached under Hal Mumme at Kentucky. In each of his three seasons in Lubbock, Brown’s offenses ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing offense and top 15 in total offense.
The defense isn’t in much better shape than the offense, although Kentucky ranked 59th in the country in total defense (391 ypg) and averaged 2.17 sacks per game (49th). There are some legit big guys up front in senior tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph, who combined for 6.0 sacks and 9.0 tackles-for-loss last season. Rumph missed the spring with a shoulder injury.
Middle linebacker Avery Williamson, a senior, returns. He had 135 tackles, which ranked second in the league, to go along with 3.0 sacks, 4.5 TFLs and an interception. Outside linebacker Alvin Dupree is a backfield menace, having led UK in both sacks (6.5) and TFLs (12.5) last season. So the front seven looks pretty solid and gives defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot something to work with. Eliot was defensive ends coach the last three years at Florida State, working under Stoops, who was defensive coordinator.
Stoops is truly starting at the bottom with this team, and it’s no easy climb in the SEC. But Kentucky has been respectable before, and judging by the spring game attendance, fans seem to believe this team can win again.
Up next: South Carolina