For the Tigers’ sake, they’re hoping the 2011 version of the showdown with the Volunteers follows a basic, no-frills path.
History says this could be a wild game at Neyland Stadium. Six of the last eight games between the two charter members of the SEC have been settled by eight points or fewer – including three straight wins for the Tigers by a total of 13 points.
The here and now points to a potential mismatch and another lopsided victory in a season already full of them for No. 1-ranked LSU.
Regardless of how it plays out, there won’t be a shortage of storylines when the Tigers (6-0, 3-0 SEC) and Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) tangle at 2:30 p.m.
There’s the memory of last season, when LSU lost to the Vols on what appeared to be the last play of the game and then beat them moments later on an untimed down.
There’s John Chavis’ return to Knoxville and the stadium he called his stomping grounds for 20 years as a coach and four as a player.
And there’s the matchup of a wounded UT team – without its starting quarterback and a top receiver and possibly the No. 1 tailback – against one of the best defenses in the country.
As much as recent history might point one direction, the signs are all there for a rough day at home for the Big Orange.
Second-year coach Derek Dooley is playing the David role well to LSU’s Goliath.
He never missed a chance to heap praise on the Tigers throughout the week, even saying if his offensive line didn’t show up to play that LSU would annihilate the Vols.
So, is Dooley right and the stage is set for a blowout? Or is all this talk the foundation for Tigers letdown with Tennessee squeezed between emotional rivalry home games vs. Florida and Auburn?
Maybe somewhere in between, because LSU seems to be a focused team after blazing through the first half of the season without a hint of the off-field field problems that plagued the talented Tigers right before the campaign kicked into high gear.
“There’s not a chance we’re looking past Tennessee,” guard Josh Williford said. “We underestimated them last year and almost let them beat us. That taught us we can’t do that. It’s an SEC team and that means they’re very talented no matter what’s happened before this week.”
Without question, there’s plenty of reason why the Vols ought to have LSU’s undivided attention.
Tennessee comes in with one of the SEC’s top passing offenses, averaging 327.2 yards a game through the air with 14 touchdown passes, which is tied for the most in the league. The major change this week, of course, is that the SEC’s top passer won’t be pulling the trigger for UT.
Sophomore Tyler Bray broke his right thumb late in the Volunteers’ 20-12 loss to Georgia last week and is out 4-6 weeks. That thrusts senior Matt Simms back into the starter’s role – a spot he held the first eight games of last season when Tennessee sputtered to a 2-6 beginning.
Dooley said the offense won’t change with Simms, who guided the Vols to a late touchdown against Georgia in his most extensive action of the season. He has hit 5-of-8 passes this season for 57 yards after registering 1,460 passing yards last season.
“In our situation, the good news is Matt has a lot of experience, and when you’re about to go play the best team in the country, we certainly would rather our No. 2 go in whose got some game experience and been around the block than a new one who’s got to start it out from scratch,” Dooley said.
“We’re going to run our plays. We do what we do just like a lot of teams. We’re not experienced enough to go out there and reshape an entire game plan. We’re going to run our plays and we hope all 11 guys are executing and hopefully that will give us a chance.”
“He’s a good passer and he gives them a little bit different look,” LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. “He actually throws a lot better than (Bray), but holds the ball a lot longer, so our defensive line is going to try to get a lot of pressure on him.
“Tennessee has a lot of big, tall, physical receivers that will go up and catch the ball, so you have to be physical with them in the secondary.”
This is the first time since the West Virginia game LSU’s defense will get a taste of an offense that relies more on the pass than the run. UT is the SEC’s worst rushing team, averaging only 84.8 yards a game and 2.5 yards a carry.
That likely means the ball will be in the air early and often – perhaps a chance for redemption after the Tigers got torched for 463 passing yards by WVU quarterback Geno Smith.
Smith completed 38-of-65 throws and LSU never sacked him, leading to a humbling night that still seems to be stuck in the Tigers’ collective craw.
“We take what happened at West Virginia as a challenge on the defensive line and I’m sure the DBs feel the same way,” defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “We want to cause as much pressure as we can and get in the backfield and disrupt some of that.”
Added Taylor, “We just want to come out and stay focused, read our keys and work on ball pursuit like we have every week since West Virginia. That game is going to be a motivation for us all season because we don’t want it to happen again.”
However Tennessee tries to generate yards and points, LSU’s defenders insist they won’t be surprised by whatever the Vols do, especially with the extra motivation on Chavis’ mind this week.
A former middle guard for Tennessee, Chavis was on the coaching staffs of Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer and spent 14 seasons as the Volunteers’ defensive coordinator.
When Fulmer was pushed out following the 2008 season, and Lane Kiffin’s ill-fated one-year tenure began, Chavis moved on to LSU.
The Tigers’ defensive coordinator declined to talk all week about his return to Knoxville, where he and his wife still have a home.
“We’re just going to go out and prepare like we have been because that’s the way Coach Chavis always does,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “Whatever they come out with, we have to be prepared for it and adjust and go out and play ball.
“We want to win week in and week out, but you know this game means a lot more (to Chavis) than the other ones. It’s the school he came from and you never want to lose those games.”
As much as the focus might logically be on how LSU’s defense will hold up against a UT offense that has scored 40 points or more in its three wins, Dooley isn’t discounting what the Tigers have done with the ball.
LSU is second in the SEC with 38.5 points a game despite ranking only ninth in total offense with 366.8 yards a game.
The Tigers have excelled at taking advantage of short fields created either by the defense or when the field-position battle swings their way, and they have also been very protective of the ball with only three turnovers.
“We know what we want to do coming into a game and we’re not going to change,” receiver Rueben Randle said. “We’re going to continue to pound the ball and whenever you start stacking the box against us, we’re going to take some shots downfield. As long as keep doing that well, we’re going to be fine.”
Added quarterback Jarrett Lee, “We’re a very focused and motivated group right now. We’ve grown a lot from last year as a team.”
Grown into an offense Dooley said is a perfect complement to the aggressive defense.
“This looks like one of their best offense that they’ve had, and when you combine an offense like this with the defense that they’ve had, what you get is a team that’s ranked No. 1 in the country,” Dooley said.
And this week, a No. 1 team that is unquestionably focused after the controversial, unlikely, indescribable finish to last season’s 16-14 triumph over the Vols.
“I know Tennessee will definitely have a chip on their shoulders because we were able to beat them in such an awkward way,” safety Eric Reid said. “We have to have that same kind of attitude.”