LEXINGTON — Welcome to the second half of the college football season. At the University of Kentucky that traditionally means the schedule lightens, but the Wildcats are so beat up physically and mentally that they continue to lose anyway.
We’ll see if that is the case this time around, starting Thursday night when Kentucky travels to Starkville, Miss., to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Kickoff is at 7:30 on ESPN.
The Wildcats come in 1-5 overall and 0-3 in the Southeastern Conference, while Mississippi State is plodding along at 3-3 and 0-2.
Kentucky is coming off a 48-7 loss at home to No. 1-ranked Alabama, while MSU enters with the same record following a 21-20 win at home over Bowling Green. Both of those games were played Oct. 12.
The problem for Kentucky coming into this game is, again, a familiar one: The Wildcats do not have the depth overall or strength on the offensive and defensive lines to compete against, say, the top eight to 10 teams in the SEC.
And Mississippi State falls into that eight to 10 range. Barely, perhaps, but the Bulldogs are in it.
The hope is familiar, too, however, for Kentucky. Though MSU coach Dan Mullen is 4-0 against the Wildcats, all four outings have been moderately competitive: 27-14 last season, 28-16 in 2011, 24-17 in 2010 and 31-24 in 2009.
The Bulldogs always seem to be solid defensively, and consistently physical offensively, if not spectacular. They always have some pesky quarterback who can run and throw competently and finds any weakness Kentucky might have.
This year Mississippi State has two such signal callers: senior Tyler Russell, who missed three games recently with a concussion, and sophomore Dak Prescott.
In the Bowling Green game, Russell completed 12 of 14 passes for 102 yards. Prescott was 7 of 11 for 75 yards, and also led the Bulldogs in rushing with 139 yards on 15 carries.
“They are a physical team, a team that can create the quarterback run game, put you in a bind with the quarterback run game, and still be physical ... throw the ball out of that, the play actions out of that,” UK coach Mark Stoops said Monday at his weekly, in-season press conference.
“It’ll be a real challenge. They are a very good team, and a very well coached team.”
What all UK fans hope is the kicker this season, no pun intended, is Stoops and his staff. Can they find some fire in a UK team that looked to be fading in the drubbing by Alabama? Which, looking at the Tide’s 52-0 shellacking of Arkansas Saturday, might not be the disastrous defeat it appeared at the time.
Outside of Kentucky’s seniors, of course, the hope is that the Wildcats do not view this season as a be-all-end-all. Stoops and his staff have said, sometimes bluntly and sometimes delicately, they do not have the depth of experienced talent to go toe to toe against most SEC teams. Yet.
That’s coming, via recruiting that continues to be impressive. But it would serve the many talented youngsters on the UK roster this season to keep their heads up and their noses to the grindstone so they don’t start 1-5 again in 2014.
The next opportunity in this building process is Thursday.
Stoops said he believes the bye week came at a good time, physically and mentally.
On the physical side, standout junior defensive end Bud Dupree is expected back this week, and Stoops said that the ankle injury to sophomore QB Jalen Whitlow is not as severe as first feared, though all signs point to Maxwell Smith as the starter at that spot.
And then, again, there’s Kentucky’s mental state to think about.
“This has been a good week, a very productive week,” Stoops said, referring to time spent since the Alabama loss. “We’ve had an opportunity to heal up a little bit and also improve as a football team.”
I asked Stoops if he has any sense from his players a desire to prove themselves after the beatdown vs. Alabama.
“I really don’t feel that they have to prove themselves,” he said. “I just feel like our guys are working so hard to get ourselves in a position to win one of these games, and this is our next opportunity.
“I feel our players are in a good place, and they’re going to be energized and excited to play.”
UK NOTE: UK officials announced the Wildcats’ non-conference home game Nov. 2 against Alabama State will start at 7:30 p.m.