More than any other annual series on the Kentucky football schedule, the games with Mississippi State seem to often turn out to be a defining moment for the season.
Take 2006. After a 49-0 drubbing at LSU, Rich Brooks' Cats needed a win in the worst way--perhaps to save the coach's job. And with Dicky Lyons, Jr having a career day in Starkville, making arguably the most difficult catch in UK football history, UK prevailed 34-31. That set the stage for an upset of Georgia a week later and that team went on to win a bowl game for the first time in 22 years.
And how about 2008. Randall Cobb made his first start at quarterback and he led the Cats to a 14-13 win at State, with Matt Roark providing the margin of victory with one of his patented PAT blocks. As the season played out, a loss there would have kept UK out of the Liberty Bowl game it won over East Carolina.
Remember 1998. When you look back, the season's sixth win, a 37-35 nail-biter over State, was the one that ultimately got Kentucky what it needed to get a chance to play in the Outback Bowl, the first New Year's Day bowl in a half century.
Ofcourse, the trend cuts both ways. In 2007, the MSU game came at a point on the schedule that followed three nationally-televised and emotionally draining games against South Carolina, LSU and Florida. An injury-depleted Kentucky just didn't show up that day and got thumped in a game that, along with the Tennessee loss, combined to keep the Cats from getting to play on New Year's Day again.
And the script was similar in 2009, when Kentucky just couldn't stop Anthony Dixon and the State rushing attack and UK droppped a seven-point decision. A win there might well have put the Cats in that often-discussed "better bowl."
In 1999, a last-second field goal gave an unbeaten MSU team a nationally-televised Thursday night win over the visiting Wildcats. A win might have meant a better bowl that year, too, and at worst, it would have been a top 10 win on the road--which would have been the first since 1964.
And finally, there was a Halloween night loss to the Bulldogs in 1992, when Doug Pelfrey's last-second field goal try was blocked. That thwarted a promising UK season and wasted a career-best 357-yard passing game by Pookie Jones.
Saturday's game will mark the 39th meeting between these two programs and Kentucky leads the overall series 21-17. Of those previous 38 matchups, 16 have been decided by a touchdown or less, with Kentucky holding a 9-7 edge in those games. And there's a good chance that both the winner and the loser will look back on this contest as the one that defined the season. State still has to play Alabama as well as Arkansas on the road, so a bowl trip would be a shaky proposition at best if the Dogs don't leave Lexington with a "W." And what would a victory mean for a seemingly resurrgent UK team that looked dead in the water just a couple of weeks ago?
The easy answer to that question is "a lot" and so count me in favor of Joker Phillips' move to break out the black uniforms. Is it a gimmick? Sure, but what the heck. This particular team, because of its slow start, has been emotionally beaten down through the first half of the season. Last Saturday's performance, which admittedly coming against a lesser foe, was nonetheless encouraging because of the way the Wildcats' offensive line dominated and the way the defense forced turnovers.
Suddenly, these players are feeling much better about themselves and so the coach's move to maximize that newfound confidence with the uniforms that players have clamored to wear for a couple of years is a smart play. If the Cats don't win, it'll be a footnote. But if they upset MSU, the black uni's will take on legendary status.