*These teams have played only one common foe this season. State lost at home to Auburn 3-2, while the Vols lost at Auburn 14-12.
*Neyland Stadium has seen the second-most victories of any current home venue in major college football, 420. Only Georgia Tech's Dodd Stadium, where State played a month ago, has hosted more wins with 427. Neyland is the fourth-largest football stadium in the country behind (in order) only Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State. Tennessee has led the SEC in attendance for 34 years, and counting.
*Bulldog offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Woody McCorvey (1999-2003) and receivers coach Pat Washington (1995-2005) both coached for UT head coach Phillip Fulmer. Vol running backs coach Stan Drayton (2004) coached backs for Sylvester Croom in his first year at State.
About the Volunteers: It's not a happy time on Rocky Top. The slowest SEC start in two decades will do that for folk accustomed to better. Much better. Yet need we remind that Tennessee is the defending East Division champions? We need, because it puts the position in perspective. There is no shortage of talent on the Volunteer roster, again, and the '08 lineup has plenty of size, speed, everything…except maybe some experience in a couple of key positions, and just the general confidence UT teams typically play with. And of course the annual practice of front-loading the schedule, with the heaviest hitters in the first two months. So no, they're not a happy bunch these days. But whatever the issues and distractions, the bottom line remains that Tennessee is, well, Tennessee. And the team that lines up Saturday evening can play with anyone in the land and beat most of them when on their best game. Some things just don't change.
Offense: Strange but true: Mississippi State is actually ahead of Tennessee in total offense. Well, OK, it's only by 1.2 yards; and the Vols do rank a notch ahead of MSU in scoring, 17.3 to 16.3 points. But the point is as clear as it is unexpected given the history of UT offenses. Two touchdowns per-game ought to be a modest half, not a whole game for this group. So mid-season the Vols have changed triggermen to put some firepower in attack. Or air-power rather, with soph QB Nick Stephens bringing more long-strike capability to the gameplan. In his two starts Stephens is 23-of-47 passing for 364 yards and three touchdowns, without any intercepts. More telling, almost half his completions have gone for double-digit gains. This isn't good news for defenses that would rather crowd the front and keep Arian Foster in-check. The senior, who plays much bigger and stronger than his listed 215-pound size, had a most uncharacteristic outing at Georgia when his team fell behind early and had to go all-aerial. Nor has he gotten into the end zone this year. What needs remembering is Foster is about to come the program's #3 all-time rusher, and the top spot isn't out of reach. He's getting 5.0 yards per-carry and that first senior TD can't be too far off, especially as he's a top target in the short passing game. For longer patterns Stephens can look for senior Lucas Taylor (19 catches, 246 yards, 1 TD) or rising soph-star Gerald Jones (19, 251, 3TD). Meanwhile soph Denarius Moore boasts an eye-opening average of 25 yards on his six catches so far. While the Vols do like using a three-wides set, defenses can't overlook TE Luke Stocker and his 10.0-yard average catch, either. The most obvious change from 2007 has been pass-protection. There have been nine sacks allowed in half this season after just four baggings all last year, though the smarts of graduated senior Eric Ainge surely helped there. It's not for lack of line experience though with 119 cumulative starts by this fivesome. Center Josh McNeil, younger brother of former MSU center Chris, has opened 29-straight games at that position. At 280 pounds he's the ‘little' guy here too as the guards and tackles average 314 pounds, topped by TR Ramon Foster at 325. LG Anthony Parker is a unanimous All-SEC projectee. Again, most stats aren't anything to boast of, other than a positive turnover ratio. Yet for all the furor outside the field, there are signs Tennessee is getting it's offensive act together midway of the season.
Defense: Talk about a complete contrast. A week after facing a low-risk Vanderbilt eleven, the Bulldogs will see a very aggressive Tennessee defense that thrives by making things happen. Bad things for ball-carriers and –throwers, often as not, especially the latter. The Vols have picked off 11 passes, tied for 3rd-nationally, and while this unit is only 9th-SEC in air yards allowed they've also given up just five passing touchdowns; no mean feat considering who they have faced. Ten of these picks have been made in the secondary and four by soph Eric Berry, already one of the land's elite strong safeties. Less than two years in college and he owns the program record for interception return yards. He doesn't just pick passes, either, but punishes people with 34 tackles. FS Demetrice Morely is back after missing last season, and starting again at free safety. The corners are locked-down by DeAngelo Willingham and Dennis Rogan, each with a pair of picks to their credit. It's not easy for those safeties to get their tackles, though, because the linebackers normally arrive at the ball first. MLB senior Felix Wilson doesn't just lead the team, he tops the SEC this week in total stops with 51 in the five games played (he missed Northern Illinois with a shoulder injury). WLB Rico McCroy is coming off a 106-tackle soph season and is up to 34 already this year. Notice the linebackers don't get a ton of tackles behind the line; it's because the linemen do. Especially those two on the right side, where DE Robert Ayers is third in SEC tackles-for-losses and DT Dan Williams is 8th. Demonte Bolden can play either tackle slot, while Wes Brown covers a lot of ground from the left end of the line. Gaining ground on the ground isn't easy against this unit, which has allowed only one 100-yard rusher (against Georgia) and averages 4th-best in the league. No wonder opponents keep putting the ball in the air, regardless of the obvious risks in tempting this rambling, gambling secondary. But not all is right here, either, as Tennessee is last in the league in third-down conversion defense.
Specialists: Now here is a serious surprise. Volunteer punting is last in the SEC with a net of just 30.3 yards each kick along with two touchdowns and a couple of blocks. So they've changed punters to get more balls farther downfield, replacing Chad Cunningham with Britton Colquitt. He rewarded the move with a 48.0-average at Georgia. Wideout Jones is giving a reliable 11 yards on each returned punt which certainly helps in field positioning. PK Daniel Lincoln is 5-of-9 on field goals but doesn't get much work; in three games no three-pointers were attempted. Rogan runs back kickoffs at a 25.1-yard clip.
The Series: Tennessee holds a 27-15-1 lead in an intermittent series going back to 1907, and are on a five-win streak spread over 13 seasons. The only consistent stretch of meetings was from 1948-64, with all but one of the 16 games played in the state of Tennessee. In fact there have been almost as many meetings in Memphis (14) as in Knoxville (19) over the year. As rotating Divisional opponents the teams now meet just twice every seven seasons. UT won the last three times State visited Knoxville, most recently in 2003, with State's last win there in 1986.
The Last Time (October 13, 2007): The stats and scores looked modern enough. But #25 Tennessee's 33-21 victory over Mississippi State at Scott Field had a genuine old-school flavor. It was really a muscle-on-muscle meeting where the Volunteers proved stronger on both sides of the line over four quarters. A four-yard pass from quarterback Eric Ainge put UT on the scoreboard six minutes after kickoff, then State evened it up on a 38-yard pass from Wesley Carroll to Tony Burks. There was a swap of touchdowns in the second quarter, too, with Anthony Dixon breaking a 30-yard scoring run and Ainge finding Lucas Taylor for a 51-yard TD pass. A 47-yard field goal gave Tennessee the 17-14 halftime lead, then Arian Foster dove across from a yard out at 12:12 of the third quarter to make the margin ten points. Carroll found Jamayel Smith for a 14-yard touchdown toss and cut the deficit to 24-21, but after the Vols chipped a short field goal through State was held on fourth down at UT's 35-yard line. Daniel Lincoln added field goals of 26 and 43 yards in the last period for the final margin. Tennessee tallied 470 total yards, 259 of that on 22-of-36 Ainge passing and 139 on the ground by Foster. Carroll, making his first SEC start, was 18-of-33 for 203 yards and the pair of scores while Dixon managed 108 hard yards on 26 totes. UT wideout Taylor was unstoppable, making 186 yards on 11 catches.
Bulldog Player Notes: Mississippi State got through the Vanderbilt game without a turnover of any sort. Though there were two fumbles, both were recovered safely. Including the LSU game where the Dogs also managed to keep the handle, State now has risen to 7th in SEC turnover margin and is only one giveaway, or takeaway, from breaking-even on the year.
*Opponents have dropped the ball 15 times through six games, but State's defense has managed to recover only six of these fumbles.
*Mississippi State is the only SEC team yet to score a non-offensive touchdown this year. The Dogs have not been able to convert a kick, block, interception, or fumble directly into points so far. Last year State scored six touchdowns on defensive plays and one on a punt return.
*State leads the SEC this week in one category: in opponents penalties. Bulldog foes average 67 penalty yards a game, five more than the 62 Florida nets. Ole Miss is last this week, getting just 37 free yards from foes.
*He didn't get to double-digits this time, but senior MLB Dominic Douglas led State's defense in tackles for another game. Douglas had eight total stops against Vanderbilt, giving him a team-best 44 for the year. He had a career-high 11 tackles at LSU.
*In the first five games State's defense tallied eight official sacks, by seven different Dogs. Against Vanderbilt the defense was credited with five sacks (one shared between DEs Brandon Cooper and Charles Burns). None went to SLB K.J. Wright, but the soph continues to lead in tackles-for-losses with 6.0. Wright trails only Douglas in total tackles, with 21 to his account.
*State is ranked #2 in SEC pass defense midway of the season at 138 yards per-game. Yet this defense is doing it without a single player listed in the league's top-20 ‘passes defended' category, or anyone in the top-ten in individual sacks.
*Of course another reason State rates so high in pass defense is that they also are just 11th in SEC rushing defense, by a considerable margin at 156 yards allowed weekly.
*Senior S Derek Pegues missed the opening game under suspension, but he's still third in team tackles with 26.
*An interception at LSU, his first this senior season, gives Pegues 11 for his career to tie him for 3rd on the MSU list with Henry Davison (1974-77) and Kenny Johnson (1976-79). Pegues' next pick will match Izell McGill (1994-97) for second place.
*Pegues' average return off an interception of 21.9 yards is the best of any Bulldog ever. And he holds the career record for interception touchdowns with three.
*Pegues has returned 66 punts in four seasons, which ranks him third on the MSU chart. His 714 yards is fourth-most in program history.
*The first-place records he does hold now are for both kickoffs returned (96) and yards (2,173) as Pegues just become the first Dog with 2,000 such yards. He is now the #3 all-time kickoff returner in SEC history, having just passed Domanick Davis of LSU.
*Pegues' combined 2,887 return yards are fourth-most in SEC history…and still second in MSU records to Tony James' 3,194 who is #3 all-time in the SEC.
*HB Anthony Dixon notched his first 100-yard game of this junior season, and the 7th of his career, with 107 yards against Vanderbilt. This pushed Dixon up to 2,161 ground yards for his career, ranking him now 9th on the MSU list. He passed Kenny Roberts (2,070, 1989-92) for 9th place Saturday. Dixon needs 48 yards to catch Dicenzo Miller (2,209, 1998-01) for 8th place.
*Dixon has 98 rushes so far this year, and soon will set that State record. He has 554 in three seasons, ranking 4th for now; the record is 578 by Davis.
*Dixon has to wait another week to try to tie, or break, the MSU record for rushing touchdowns. The junior has scored 26 times via handoffs, one behind Michael Davis (27, 1991-94). *But Dixon has surpassed Davis in total touchdowns scored, with 28. He has two TDs off pass receptions. The official MSU record book only lists ‘touchdowns accounted for' which includes the passers. Don Smith (1983-86) owns that mark of 52.
*Dixon's 167 career points place him 5th on the all-time MSU list, one ahead of Davis. He needs 185 to catch Jackie Parker (1952-53) for 4th, though 41 of Parker's points came on PAT kicks. The top-three spots all belong to pure placekickers.
*Junior HB Christian Ducre added to his own October touchdown total with a fourth-quarter score against Vanderbilt. He now has two rushing touchdowns and another receiving score this month.
*For the year Ducre has 193 yards rushing, 91 more receiving. And he averages 5.1 yards each time he touches the ball.
*JC transfer QB Tyson Lee got his first college, and SEC, start two weeks ago at LSU. Now he's notched his first collegiate and league victory after starting against Vanderbilt.
*Before he got the starting job, Lee was 30-of-45 passing in three games for 291 yards and no touchdowns. In his two starts he is 29-of-48 passing with 256 yards and two touchdowns.
*Lee has now thrown 93 passes without an interception. Last year QB Wesley Carroll fell one short of the NCAA record for beginning a career with 137 non-picked passes.
*Lee has yet to throw a touchdown to a wide receiver. His two scores have come on tosses to HB Ducre and TE Brandon Henderson.
*Sophomore Carroll has 12 touchdowns for his college passing career so far, with 13 intercepts.
*Carroll has thrown for 1,920 career yards. He needs 2,940 to break the MSU top-ten.
Of State's dozen touchdowns this year, five have been career-firsts. WR Brandon McRae and FB Brandon Hart got their first college scores at Tech;TE Austin Wilbanks scored his first D-I touchdown against SELa on a throw from Carroll. Redshirt HB Robert Elliot got into the end zone on a six-yard scamper at Georgia Tech. And Henderson got on the board with his end-zone grab against Vanderbilt.
*That was not only Henderson's first college score, but his first college catch.
*Junior WR Brandon McRae is clearly the preferred target of any Bulldog passer. He led the lineup in receptions against Vanderbilt, with five. That gives him 33 receptions for the season, best on the team as is his 302 yards and two touchdowns.
*Those 33 grabs in six games by McRae equal the team-leading total by WR Jamayel Smith in 13 games last season. McRae had just two catches all of 2007.
*McRae's ten catches at Georgia Tech tied Smith's total at Arkansas last year for the most grabs by a Bulldog during Croom's tenure.
*Senior Smith has had a slower start to the season, with eight catches in six games for 120 yards, a third of his yardage on one grab at LSU.
*All last year, State completed 188 passes; halfway through this season there are 110 completions. But, the average gain-per-grab has steadily slid the last three games and is now an overall 9.8 yards for the season. Opponents are netting 12.8 yards per-grab by contrast.
*FB Eric Hoskins is getting back into the gameplan. He has caught a ball in three of the last four games, and did not play at LSU.
*With touchdowns by Henderson and Wilbanks, State already has as many tight end scores this year as all last season when TE Jason Husband got a couple of TDs.
*Senior P Blake McAdams is the most prolific punter in MSU history. His 249 kicks and 9,774 yards are both Bulldog records, and 6th and 11th in the SEC charts. He has booted balls for 5.4 miles in his MSU career.
*PK Adam Carlson seems over an early-season slump, though it was not all of his own making. Three-straight field goal attempts failed; one a miss, one blocked, and one a mishandled placement. This after Carlson had hit nine-straight attempts, including his last seven kicks of 2007. Carlson has now hit from 42 against LSU and 33 in the Vandy game.
*Carlson is now 22-of-36 for his career on three-pointers. And he is 79-of-80 on PATs with a 32-make streak ongoing. He ranks second on the State's point-after list, behind only the 89 by Brian Hazelwood (1995-98).
*Carlson 9th in made field goals, needing one more to catch Kinney Jordan (23, 1975-76) for 8th.
*Seven true freshmen have played so far this season, the latest being TE Kendrick Cook. Two rookies, DE Sean Ferguson and TE Nelson Hurst, have starts to their credit. Their activated classmates are S Charles Mitchell, WR Delmon Robinson, LB Bo Walters, and DT Joshua Jackson.
*First-year frosh who have yet to play are: WR Arceto Clark, WR Terrance Davis, DB Louis Watson, CB Corey Broomfield, RB T.J. Patterson, DE Nick Bell, LB Mike Hunt, DE Trevor Stigers, DT Devin Jones, OG Tobias Smith, OT Templeton Hardy, WR O'Neal Wilder, WR Charles Bailey, and DE Shane McCardell.
*P McAdams leads this team in career starts (42). OG Anthony Strauder leads the non-specialists in starts with 36.
*S Keith Fitzhugh, P Blake McAdams, LB Anthony Littlejohn, and S De'Mon Glanton all share the games-played lead with 42 apiece.