STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State doesn't have a very easy path to six victories and a fourth straight season of bowl eligibility.
Beating Kentucky would be a good first step.
The Bulldogs (3-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) host Kentucky (1-5, 0-3) on Thursday night in a matchup of two teams vying for their first conference victory of the season. Mississippi State has won four straight against the Wildcats, including last season's 27-14 victory in Lexington, Ky.
Mississippi State is coming off an unimpressive 21-20 victory over Bowling Green on Oct. 12. The Bulldogs have some promising young players — like sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott and sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney — but have been inconsistent on both sides of the ball.
"I think we have a lot of guys that want to win, desperately want to win, and are learning how to do it within the team setting," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
Kentucky is facing many of the same obstacles. The Wildcats, who are led by first-year coach Mark Stoops, are coming off a lopsided 48-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 12, but before that played competitive games against South Carolina and Florida.
"You watch their team and they're accomplishing an awful lot," Mullen said. "Their guys are playing hard for four quarters, buying into their system. And you see a lot of growth and development on a team that looks like a very young football team."
Both teams will likely use a two-quarterback system on Thursday. Stoops said Maxwell Smith has received most of the first-team snaps in practice this week, but the more mobile Jalen Whitlow could also play.
"I think it's no secret any time you're playing a team that's struggled a little bit like we have ... they're going to want to get off to a fast start and put a dagger in us early," Stoops said. "We have to go out and offset that and play and execute well to start the game."
Mississippi State has used both Prescott and senior Tyler Russell under center the past two games.
The Bulldogs need to show some improvement before a brutal three-game stretch in November that includes South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama.
Here are 5 things to watch as Kentucky travels to face Mississippi State on Thursday night:
MISSISSIPPI STATE QBs: Mississippi State has used a two-quarterback approach that past two games, with sophomore Dak Prescott and senior Tyler Russell both receiving extensive playing time. The arrangement has been a mild success, but the Bulldogs' offense sputtered in the most recent 21-20 win over Bowling Green.
MULLEN LIKES KENTUCKY: Mississippi State's fifth-year coach Dan Mullen has never lost a game to Kentucky. He's won four straight against the Wildcats as a head coach with the Bulldogs and also won all four matchups while an assistant coach at Florida.
MSU'S GROUND GAME: Mississippi State has had five straight games with at least 200 rushing yards, which is the program's longest streak since an eight-game stretch in 1983 and 1984. Prescott leads the team with 457 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
KENTUCKY'S QB CAROUSEL: Maxwell Smith appears to be the Wildcats' starter, but don't be shocked if the more mobile Jalen Whitlow is a game-time decision or sees extensive time under center now that he appears to have recovered from a sprained left ankle. At one point the coaching staff was considering taking the redshirt off of either Patrick Towles or freshman Reese Phillips, but that's not a concern now that Whitlow was able to recover during the bye.
WILDCATS' STEADY PUNTER: Kentucky's offensive struggles have meant a lot of work for sophomore punter Landon Foster, who has consistently delivered long kicks in his career. He's averaging nearly 42 yards per punt and is coming off a career-best game against Alabama featuring eight kicks including a 58-yarder to finish the night with an average of 44.8.
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this story.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP