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As always, UK-MSU critically important for both teams

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FB 09_10 UK_FL  WEB 001.jpgRich Brooks has talked about it all year.

Kentucky wants to climb that proverbial ladder to the top of the Southeastern Conference. With presumably just a few years left in his coaching career, Brooks wants to put Kentucky on top when he finally decides to walk away.

But Brooks reminded everyone Monday that it takes more than just a leap to the get to the top. It takes several steps and several climbs to reach that ultimate destination.

It's kind of like that ancient and all too often overused cliché of taking it one step at a time. UK has to take that next step on the ladder before it can think about the second and third step.

Mississippi State, historically the UK of the SEC Western Division, is the next barrier to climb. If the Cats are going to check off the next batch of goals, they have to take care of the teams like Mississippi State.

"When you are in the lower half of the league historically, to get to the upper half, you not only have to knock off some of those big guys, but you have to beat the guys that are like you," said Brooks, who is 7-4 against SEC West teams since 2006. "Mississippi State and Kentucky have been like each other for quite a while, and the team that wins has an edge up of being able to climb that ladder a little bit."

MSU stole a similar edge in 2007 in an eerily identical game. The Cats were riding a 6-2 record into Homecoming weekend, just two weeks removed from the historic upset over No. 1 LSU. Nationally ranked with four games to go, the UK players and coaches had their sights set on - gasp! - a New Year's Day bowl.

And then the MSU ground attack ran the UK train right off the tracks. The upset at Commonwealth certainly didn't derail a superb season in the Bluegrass - the Cats went on to finish 8-5 and win the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl - but there's no telling where UK might have been spending the holidays had it not floundered on Homecoming.

"It's always something that happens before this game," offensive lineman Christian Johnson said. "Some games we lose and then there's always some games that other SEC teams lose, which makes it all the more important to push yourself in front of them if you do win the game."

A must-win, though, if UK is going to make this season's bid for a fourth straight bowl appearance even more special?

"We definitely have to win this game," Johnson said. "This is one of the biggest games of the season, if not the biggest. If we win this it will put us ahead where we need to be and help us accomplish our goal of going to the best bowl game that we can."

But that's where the paradox exists. As much as Kentucky needs this game, Mississippi State might need it even more. At 3-5 with four games remaining, the Bulldogs would need to win three of their next four to be bowl eligible.

It's yet another strikingly similar scenario to the 2007 Homecoming humbling. The Bulldogs entered that game 4-4 and in dire need of two more wins to become bowl eligible. With the win, MSU went on to a Liberty Bowl victory.

"You look at your schedule and whether you are favored, or not going to be favored, or going to be favored, and you look and say you can beat this team and that team, but you have to beat this team and this team. Guess what? They are looking at you the same way. We have to beat that team," Brooks said.
 
Needless to say, the Mississippi State game has had huge ramifications in each of UK's bowl-winning seasons.

In 2006, the MSU win arguably turned the season around - and quite possibly the fate of UK's modern history - the week after a trouncing in Baton Rouge, La. Last season, UK squeaked out its bowl eligibility victory following a demoralizing defeat to Florida.

Both teams need this game, maybe a bit desperately. As history would indicate, it could define the rest of the season.

"It's one of those games you have to win," Johnson said. "We're going to have to come together, we're going to have to play hard and we're going to have to fight our best."

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