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November 4, 2011

Ole Miss presents Cats with shot at SEC win

MISSISSIPPI at KENTUCKY
Site: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky. (67,942)
Game time: 3:30 p.m.

Coaches: Joker Phillips, Kentucky (9-12 overall, second year at UK and overall, 0-1 against Ole Miss), Houston Nutt, Ole Miss (135-92 overall, 24-22 in his fourth year at Ole Miss, 3-3 against UK, 1-0 against UK at Ole Miss)
Series history: Ole Miss leads 27-13-1
Depth charts: Kentucky, Ole Miss
TV: ESPNU
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network, XM 199, Sirius 220 (Sirius Premier package), radio stream at UKathletics.com
Internet video stream: None (subject to blackout)

Last time
Kentucky held a 14-7 lead in the second quarter, but the Rebels went on a 35-6 run and took control thanks to three turnovers by the Wildcats. Mike Hartline threw an interception while Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews lost a fumble each to swing momentum to Ole Miss. The Wildcats rallied and scored a touchdown to pull within seven points with 1:34 to go, but the onside kick slipped out of bounds when Danny Trevathan couldn't corral it with a cast on his hand. Jeremiah Masoli only passed for 90 yards, but had four total touchdowns on the day. Cobb and Derrick Locke each had over 100 yards, but couldn't help Kentucky complete the comeback.

Kentucky will win if?
In all probability, Maxwell Smith is not going to be a miracle worker. But if he can be a steady quarterback who can complete passes for a high percentage and keep the chains moving, he'll be an upgrade over his predecessor. He's going to need plenty of help, though. Asking a true freshman signal caller to win SEC games is a steep order, never mind the fact that Kentucky's top two running backs will be out and the third is banged up. He'll need the offensive line to hold and his receivers to find separation. And of course, then they'll have to hang on to the ball.

He'll also need some help from the defense. Danny Trevathan and Co. gave the offense a big boost last weekend by recovering fumbles at the Mississippi State 23 and 21 yard lines, but the Wildcats couldn't turn those turnovers into touchdowns. Smith had a pair of long drives last week, but that's a lot to ask of him. The Rebels have a strong offensive line and an explosive running game, but if the defense can stop that, quarterback Randall Mackey is going to struggle to beat UK through the air.

The Rebels like to go deep. Their leading receiver averages over 17 yards per reception and has four touchdowns on just 18 catches. Mackey averages over 14 yards per completion. Martavius Neloms, Mikie Benton and Ashely Lowery will have to be on guard, but if they can stop big plays from chewing up chunks of yardage, UK will have a great chance of forcing three-and-outs and starting drives with field position. It all comes back to making Smith's job as easy as possible. That's going to be the objective for the entire team.

Ole Miss will win if?
Those big plays that Mackey can make have to raise red flags for Kentucky, which saw Mississippi State's offense set off some fireworks of their own last week. For as solid as the defense has been at times this year, they've been just as prone to giving up explosive plays. Third downs have been especially problematic, and the Wildcats consistently struggle with containing running quarterbacks. No one is going to confuse Mackey with Michael Vick, but he's still enough of a threat to hurt Kentucky's defense.

Mississippi State hadn't prepared to face Smith, but they didn't hesitate to attack him when he went in. They sacked him three times in just over three quarters of play and hit him countless other times. There isn't a dominant pass rusher on the Ole Miss roster, but they'll have to pressure Smith and put him in situations where he isn't comfortable. On the back end of the defense, cornerback Charles Sawyer has four interceptions this year.

Ole Miss and Kentucky are both fighting to stay above water as their seasons wind down. Neither team is on pace for a bowl game, but a loss for either side would be embarrassing. These could be the two worst teams in the Southeastern Conference, and if Kentucky or Ole Miss wants to salvage a morsel of respect on the season, they can't lose this game.

Key matchup Kentucky LB Ronnie Sneed vs. Ole Miss RB Jeff Scott
The Rebels alternate between Scott and Brandon Bolden at tailback. Scott, with 102 carries, gets far more work than Bolden, the more explosive of the two. Limiting Scott and leaving Mackey and Bolden with big chunks of field to cover on third down is going to put a sputtering offense on the skids. Trevathan and Winston Guy are going to get double-digit tackles like they always do, but a big game from Sneed or Ridge Wilson would go a long way.

Cats Illustrated staff predictions:

Ben Jones, Staff Writer: Kentucky 21, Ole Miss 20
The Rebels are coming off the toughest three-game stretch of their season: home dates against Alabama and Arkansas followed by a road trip to Auburn. Kentucky fans had better hope Ole Miss hasn't recovered from those games yet, or that the team has quit on head coach Houston Nutt. Smith could provide a spark for the offense - or he could show the world why he was stuck on the bench behind Morgan Newton. It might not be pretty, but it will probably be close. Kentucky gets the edge thanks to its strong kicking game.

Brett Dawson, Publisher: Kentucky 24, Ole Miss 20
The nominees for Team Most Likely to Lose to Kentucky have been narrowed down to the Rebels and - believe it or not - the sputtering Tennessee Volunteers, and we know how that Tennessee thing goes. Ole Miss, make no mistake, is a bad team. Kentucky's no better. But where the Rebels are beaten down, the Wildcats at least have a sliver of positive energy. The Cats won two weeks ago, battled back to respectability against Mississippi State last week and might get a spring in their step from a change at quarterback. This thing can't be construed as an upset either way, but here's a hunch that the Cats rally around Smith and find a way to get it done.

Steve Jones, Recruiting Editor: Kentucky 21, Ole Miss 17
It's essentially a pick-'em game. For all the fan unrest in Lexington, it's just as strong in Oxford. For as much as the Cats are still searching for an identity, so are the Rebels. Here's to thinking the insertion of Smith, who looked very smooth and accurate against Mississippi State, as UK's starting quarterback will create enough of a spark to lift the Cats to their first league win.

T.J. Walker, Staff Writer: Ole Miss 21, Kentucky 20
The Cats' offense showed signs of life against Mississippi State last weekend, but the defense dug themselves too deep a hole. If UK can match that offensive efficiency against the Rebels it may finally get its first conference win of the season. Smith will be getting the start but which Smith will show up? The one that threw consecutive interceptions at South Carolina or the one who threw only a handful of incompletions against MSU? I believe if Morgan Newton was healthy enough to start, it would give UK a better chance to win, thanks to Newton's ability to run. Expect the Rebels to load the box and make Smith beat them deep. We will all find out Saturday if he can.


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