Offensively, the Vols carried the banner of inconsistency. Though they did drop 45 points in a blowout win against an underperforming Georgia squad in mid-October, Tennessee was proven ineffective against other SEC foes in Florida, Auburn and Alabama. In those games, the team scored no better than 22 points, while surrendering six turnovers.
At the forefront of Tennessee's early-season offensive woes was senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who had completed only 59 percent of his passes (62-of-105) for 641 yards and seven touchdowns to eight interceptions through seven contests.
But now in their last three games, including two wins, the Volunteers have scored 13 touchdowns. On six of those 13 scores, UT took five plays or less to find paydirt.
"They're explosive," defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "They've got some big-time running backs and a quarterback who's really been on fire lately."
Crompton has rebounded as well. After enduring a sluggish start, Crompton currently ranks third in the conference in passing at 216.4 yards per game and leads the league with 21 touchdown passes.
Better yet, he threw for a school record 305 yards in the first half versus Memphis a week ago. He's completed 94-of-157 passes for 1,297 yards, 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions in his last five games.
"They're throwing the ball well," said Nix. "(Crompton) is learning the offense and has finally gotten that under his belt. They're getting the ball out of his hands. They're doing some play-action and some quick things. There's not as many deep throws as getting the ball out of his hands real quick.
"And their running game's improved."
In nine starts this season, senior tailback Montario Hardesty has averaged 100.1 yards per game and scored eight rushing touchdowns.
While he ran only 13 times for 60 yards against Memphis, Hardesty posted 121 yards on 23 carries in a 31-13 win versus South Carolina, his third 100-yard performance this season. Hardesty sits 25th in the nation and fourth in the SEC in rushing yards per game, and is on pace for 1,201 rushing yards.
"They run the ball very efficiently," junior linebacker Jonathan Cornell said. "They're good at what they do on offense."
"They do a lot of zoning, have a pretty good offensive line and an All-American center," defensive tackle Jerrell Powe added. "Their running back is really good and likes to spin out of tackles. They've got a pretty solid run game. We've got to come to work Saturday."
Ole Miss has held its opponents to under 300 yards of total offense four times this season, including three SEC games. In wins over Arkansas and Vanderbilt, the Rebels surrendered no more than 299 yards of offense, and they have allowed only six points in the first quarter this year off field goals against Alabama and Arkansas.
But lately, the Rebel defense has been susceptible to the big play.
On the Plains, a busted assignment by the secondary led to a 14-yard pass and catch for a touchdown to fall behind 17-7. Then a 53-yard scamper by Auburn running back Ben Tate proved too much to overcome for Ole Miss, as the team fell behind 31-7.
A plus-50 yard pass led to a game-tying score for Northern Arizona a week later, though the Rebels ran away from an overmatched NAU squad 38-14.
Conversely, Tennessee has produced 29 plays of 20 yards or more in the last five games, with seven of those plays going for touchdowns. In its last three games alone, Tennessee posted 17 20-plus yard plays and 28 additional plays that gained between 10 and 19 yards.
"All year (the defense) hasn't given up big plays until the last couple of weeks," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "We're putting emphasis on that. We've got to make them go the long, hard way. Stop the run first and don't give up the big play."
Cornell said he's not concerned with the defense's recent trend of allowing long gainers.
"Not at all. All the guys in the secondary, we have so much faith in them," he said. "Stuff happens. It's the nature of the position. We can get some more pressure and add onto our blitzes. It's not just them, it's everybody."
Though the Rebels are seeking to become bowl eligible for the second straight year, they face a difficult challenge from an improving group of Volunteers.
Make no mistake, with marked improvement offensively, Tennessee provides a formidable opponent when paired with the conference's third-best defense statistically.
"They've got a good supporting cast and coaching staff around them," Powe said. "They were kind of sluggish earlier in the season, but they've picked it up. They've won a lot of big ballgames and came close to beating the No. 2 team in the nation (Alabama). They've got a lot of confidence."
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