STARKVILLE, Mississippi (AP) — Mississippi State has spent the past month obliterating stereotypes about the program, ignoring a mediocre history and rising to the top spot in the national rankings for the first time in school history.
Now the Bulldogs are learning to embrace life as the favorite.
No. 1 Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) travels to face Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday, which will be the program’s first game as the top-ranked team after the Bulldogs were off last weekend.
“We’re going into a game with a target on our back,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “Having to go on the road in a hostile environment … against one of the most improved teams in college football this year. Our guys better learn how to handle that and make sure we have unbelievable focus about how big of a game this really is.”
Life in the SEC is almost never easy, but Mississippi State’s next three weeks are relatively forgiving. The Bulldogs travel to face the Wildcats on Saturday — which lost to 41-3 to LSU last weekend — before home games against Arkansas and UT-Martin.
The previous off week has allowed the Bulldogs time to rest and now they’re close to having everyone healthy.
Star receiver Jameon Lewis, who has missed the past two games with a leg injury, is expected to play against Kentucky. The 5-foot-9, 183-pound senior caught 15 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown in the first four games and was the team’s leading receiver a year ago.
The Bulldogs’ biggest fear at this point might be an emotional letdown. It’s been an intense four weeks for the program, with wins over LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn catapulting them into the national spotlight.
Because of that, Mullen said that last week’s rest came at a good time, but he’ll be watching his players closely throughout the next few days to make sure they bounce back from the down time.
He expects veterans like quarterback Dak Prescott and linebacker Benardrick McKinney to take the lead and bring emotion to the practice field.
“If we’re going to be successful, I don’t need to be the one doing that,” Mullen said. “That comes from within — the leadership within the team. I think our guys understand how much we have to improve and get better. If I have to be a cheerleader out at practice, we’re going to have some problems.”
Mullen said one look at the conference statistics proves Mississippi State has plenty of places to improve. Despite a perfect start to the season, the Bulldogs rank last in the league in pass defense (308.3 yards per game) and total defense (428.8).
Kentucky has a promising young quarterback in sophomore Patrick Towles, who has thrown for 1,687 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Wildcats would like nothing more than to ruin Mississippi State’s dream season. Kentucky has a 3-11 record against No. 1-ranked teams.
“They’re playing red hot and it starts with (Prescott),” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “He’s as talented of a guy as there is in the country. He can run it, he can throw it. He’s making great decisions and their offense puts stress on you.”
Mullen said it’s up to the Bulldogs to prove they can handle the scrutiny that comes with being No. 1 and handle Kentucky’s best shot.
“We tell them ‘It’s pretty easy, if you don’t like the attention then go out there and play really poorly and nobody will ever talk about us again,'” Mullen said. “If you like the attention, continue to work hard, get better and play well.”