"It's going to be obviously a very difficult challenge, a good team; a team that knows how to win on the road. They won a nailbiter last weekend on the road, has gone and blew out Georgia Tech on the road. They know how to win in these type of games so obviously it's going to be a big challenge for our guys this week's game. We're going to need great leadership from our guys and keeping the focus and dealing with the attention. The great thing is, a lot of the young guys this is their first situation in this type where we're dealing with the adversity of success. You know, it goes both ways. But our older guys have been in a similar situation so we need their leadership to really come through and have the maturity to focus through a long football season."
"Nothing new on the injury front. We got out of the last game with bumps and bruises, but really it's an identical injury report to last week. So the guys that are kind of out are out, and the guys that are in are in! There's Cedric Jiles, there's the Hunter Bradleys, all the guys that have been out are still going to be out."
When Tobias Smith was out the offense did not score, how important is he to keeping the offense moving?
"I think he just brings some leadership into that huddle, and a little different demeanor. I don't think that he's critical. I mean, when you watch the film you don't point and say ‘boy it was the right guard was the reason we didn't move the ball on these series'. There's several different factors that are involved in it.
"He comes out in the second quarter and we don't move the ball; the first play we got a penalty and the second we were trying to run out the clock. After that holding penalty we realized we weren't going to score. The third quarter we come out and are just sloppy, Tyler (Russell) a missed read and we end up getting a sack and get behind the chains."
"But I think the demeanor he brings the team and in his leadership… I mean here's a guy that didn't play a whole lot last year, he missed most of the season, didn't go through spring, was held out of winter conditioning, minimal in summer conditioning, minimal in training camp. And yet still voted a captain by his teammates. It shows the respect he has on the team. So him being in the huddle I think uplifts the play of everybody around him."
At 6-0 and tied for first in the SEC West have you noticed anything different in Starkville than other place you've been?
"I think as a team… Unfortunately I don't get around town much during the season. But for our guys this is a lot of what they expected coming into the season. To be in this situation as a program, this is what we drill in our guys to expect. And you know, it's fantastic."
"You look at the goals that we've hit. We're bowl-eligible now for a third year in a row. This game gives you the opportunity for your third consecutive winning season. You kind of keep checking them off one game at a time within that focus. And its our goal as the year goes on, that late October and November you want to play in big games. And we're putting ourselves in position to do that."
When Smith returned the first play was a 20-yard run, is that when the offense came to life?
"I think that play was a huge lift for us. Again, I mean, he did his job on the play but everybody else executed as well. That was a point where we had struggled. We had two straight three-and-outs and you're looking at a third-and-10 situations and you got a big play. Even though we didn't score on that drive, that was a key play in the game. We ended up punting and pinning them deep and then we kind of get our rhythm back and convert some third downs after that. Watching the film, it wasn't, ‘Oh, boy, Tobias is in and that's what made the difference.' I think his mindset, though, certainly does help the demeanor in the huddle."
John Banks is now seen as a program-builder, what has he done to become that?
"He stepped in, in being a leader. Sometimes it's a tough job for a guy who played a lot as a freshman. When John came in, he had to worry about playing. You had Jamar Chaney, you had Derek Sherrod, you had Anthony Dixon. You had leaders. He comes his sophomore year and you have Pernell McPhee and K.J. (Wright) and those types of guys leading. Last year, we lacked some of the real outspoken, vocal leadership. Here's a guy who say that on the team and was a guy that didn't have to be a leader. Even though he wasn't on the field a lot, didn't have to be a leader."
"Sometimes a lot of those leaders develop with the guys that are leading their group. I'm the leader with the twos, I'm the leader with the scout team. I really build up my leadership ability then and John was surrounded by the other leaders and he was the guy being led. He came back this year and the mindset he came back with was, I want to be a great player and I want to lead this team and leave my mark on the program and do great things for the program--not just as an individual player but as a team and a leader as a team. That's where he's really stepped up and he backs it up with his performance at practice. He backs it up with how he carries himself and his work ethic in the weight room in training. He backs it up with his performance on game day."
Was it good to see Malcolm Johnson come back and make a couple of big catches?
"It's funny. You expect those things from Malcolm. He does have such great ball skills and even in practice you see him make those catches. Some of the easier ones, that's where I get almost more nervous with some of the easier ones because that's the focus and getting back in the rhythm. With his injury, too, he's had a lot of time working hands. You can't have contact, so that Jugs machine was fired up shooting balls at him since the first day of training camp an awful lot."
"When you see that on Saturday, he can be a mismatch guy because he has the athletic ability as a tight end. He creates some matchup problems when he gets on linebackers and with the ball skills he has. I know Tyler has a lot of trust. He's going to put the ball out there in a position where he has the opportunity to go make the catch and trust he can go make some spectacular catches."
Are you getting the mixture of offense and defense you want?
"We win as a football team. There's a lot of crossover when you get into games. In fact a couple years ago, when I went down to Florida and we thought we had a pretty good defense and they had a great secondary so why did we run it? We wanted to play to our strengths and not to their strengths and it takes a very unselfish mindset as to a team to do those things."
"Offensively we may not light up the scoreboard as much as possible. We want to score at any point don't get me wrong, but maybe our objective is to control the clock. And other games we're going to have to score a bunch of points. I think the same goes defensively. We want to take some shots on offense, then we better be ready to go respond on defense. When you have the team approach to everything we do, I think it works as well as it does here. The key is having no egos whether it's on the staff or on the team that hey, 42-41 or 3-2, as long as we're on the winning side of it everybody is celebrating in the locker room."
Is Middle Tennessee a potential trap game?
"Every game is a trap game. We have a trap game this week, a trap game last week and it'll be a trap game this week. Every game is like that. If you don't bring your focus in college football today, you're not going to win. You're going to play like you prepare. You have to have unbelievable focus all week. With the balance of college football today, it's evident that if you're not focused, you're not going to win the game. I don't know if there's one or two teams in the country that you can just roll the ball out there and have a bad week of practice and can still go out and win."
Your team was used to low-scoring games, how important was it to win a shootout?
"We expected that. We came in on Monday and said we're going to have to score a bunch of points. This team can light up any scoreboard in the country. I still view Tennessee as a top 25 team because we knew coming in we'd have to score points. As you get in the game, we wanted to dominate the clock and score points. I think we did both. We needed to help the defense that way and defensively, we kept the ball as much as possible out of their playmakers hands. Overall, the plan we had as a team, we hit it on Saturday."
Your penalties are down this year?
"I think that has a lot to do with focus on a team. When you start with the leadership involving the attention in practice. When you're prepared in practice, then you'll be locked in during a game. We need to continue to avoid those silly issues. As you continue to go, more guys are going to have to play because of bumps and bruises. In the long season, you have to get more focused. That's one thing you look at in college football, you go through the 12-week period of a regular season, the teams that get through are the teams that manage to perform week in and week out. They don't come out and lose their focus on who they are a college football team. For us it's taking control of the football, not making silly mistakes and staying on schedule on offense and playing great defense."
At 6-0 is much talk of a national championship coming up?
"It's out there, but to me I've done it enough, we bring up the words ‘SEC championship'. If we win the SEC West, and we're fortunate enough, then you have the opportunity to do something like that. I've said before, I tell the team in my coaching career I've been undefeated once (at Utah), and we didn't get the chance to play for the national title. I have two national championship rings, but my only undefeated season we didn't get an opportunity to play for it. That is completely out of our control, so to worry about something that you have absolutely no control over, it's useless. We do have control over winning the SEC West, though, and if we do that, I imagine great things will happen for us, and we'll be rewarded accordingly."
The offense is getting lots of big plays, but the defense is not allowing many?
"It helps. One, defensively part of our scheme certainly helps with that. And our defensive coaches do do a good job of that. One big thing, and we made a big deal in the offseason, we wanted to create more three-and-outs this year, without sacrificing giving up the big plays."
"We did a great job last year of making teams have to work for everything they had and drive the length of the field on us, not give up the big-play touchdown. Part of that, you look at time of possession, some of those things, we were giving up drives but not points, never putting the offense in a position with good field position. We've managed that goal, and our defensive staff has done a good job of improving in an area without taking away from another area. I do think it certainly helps having the experience you have in the secondary, because a lot of times those plays are the result of somebody making a mistake, a misalignment, someone fitting the wrong gap, poor communication with the corner saying one thing and the safety thinking something else. The experience aspect certainly helps to cut down on those mistakes you have that give up the big plays."
Is it exciting what can be done with Marcus Green and Malcolm Johnson?
"It just helps. It doesn't change what we've done. We didn't really change our approach this week than we have in weeks past. I know it seems like, on the naked eye watching, say, wow, they got the ball to the tight end. They gave us the tight end a little bit this week. That more than anything else is the result of seeing those guys."
"Now having Malcolm back and having more depth, it allows you as a coach that you're going to look to expand on those packages because you're not limited. You can put two tight ends on the field now, because before when we were rolling into a game with three, one goes down and you're starting to be nervous about the whole package. As you get a guy healthy back you can expand on those packages a little bit more and be a little bit more creative with it. If they take the tight end away this week, they're not going to get that many catches. If they give us the tight end, he's going to get a bunch of catches, and that's the one thing I think Tyler's done a fantastic job, is disperse the ball. He does not home in on trying to get the ball to anybody in particular. He's going to see what the defense gives him and take what they give us."
Middle Tennessee lost their top running back last week?
"That's always tough. When you have a star player go down, the psyche, it hurts for the team, it's sometimes tough. But also I think the team does rally around that guy, and you have the opportunity to see some extraordinary performances. I know their backup tailback's a very highly recruited player, transferred from LSU, and I remember a highly, highly recruited player. There's talent there, and I think that'll be a rallying cry for them."