It's big for head coach Derek Dooley, who stands 0-12 against ranked teams and 1-8 in SEC road games. Saturday night provides a chance to improve both of those ugly numbers.
It's big for quarterback Tyler Bray, who has put up eye-popping passing stats against average or worse teams but has struggled against good teams. Saturday night provides an opportunity to prove he can shine against a quality foe.
And it's big for a program desperately needing to show prospects that five-win, six-win and seven-win seasons are not the norm in Knoxville. If the Vols (3-2 overall, 0-2 SEC) stumble in Starkville, they almost certainly will end October with a 3-5 record after facing No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 South Carolina in Games 7 and 8. That would leave the Big Orange needing to win out in November just to finish 7-5.
Bray conceded that beating a ranked team "would mean a lot," adding: "Any time you get a big win ... well, we just need a win right now. It doesn't matter who we're playing. We need a win to get the confidence up for everyone on the team and move forward."
Still, beating Mississippi State would be especially sweet.
"It's very important to get any win," junior offensive tackle JaWuan James said, "but this would be a good one. We haven't beaten a ranked opponent since I've been here, so we're really looking forward to going out and trying to get a win."
Junior linebacker Jacques Smith is not concerned with Mississippi State's ranking. He figures the Vols will get plenty of opportunities to beat top-25 foes, playing in the rugged SEC.
"We're not really looking at the rankings," he said. "Heck, almost every team in the SEC is ranked. This is just a game we need to win. We just need to play a good, sound game and let everyone know that we're a great football team. People can see we're not a team to be messed with but we need to go out there and make a critical statement by a win."
|Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray must step up when the Vols are underdogs on a consistent basis.|
"It's real important because it's the next SEC team we're playing," senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. "We're looking forward to getting that first SEC win. We're looking forward to playing Mississippi State and, hopefully, getting a W."
Senior wideout Zach Rogers agreed, noting: "We need an SEC win; that's our main goal coming into this week."
If the Big Orange is going to beat an SEC team in October, it probably needs to happen this week. The Vols will be prohibitive underdogs against Alabama (Oct. 20) and at South Carolina (Oct. 27). That adds still more importance to the Mississippi State showdown.
"I think it's very important for us as a team," junior defensive end Maurice Couch said. "We're not looking forward (to Bama and Carolina); we just want to go out and win this. Based on the way we've been practicing, I think we can."
Tennessee hasn't beaten a ranked team since it trounced South Carolina 31-13 on Oct. 31, 2009 in the infamous Halloween Night black-jersey game. That was nearly 36 months ago, a fact which has gotten under the skin of several Vols.
"Yeah, it has," James said. "But you've got to take every game like it is, play as hard as you can and try to get the win."
Given all of the above, it's evident that Saturday's showdown in Starkville is the biggest game Tennessee has played in several years.
"This is a really important game," senior tight end Mychal Rivera conceded. "We're going to come out this weekend and fight for 60 minutes."
Perhaps the Vols have enough fight in them to beat a nationally ranked team for the first time in nearly three years.
"I think we're ready," Rivera said. "I think we're really ready. Hopefully, we'll show it this weekend."
Dooley vs. ranked teams
No. 7 Oregon 48, Tennessee 13
No. 10 Florida 31, Tennessee 17
No. 12 LSU 16, Tennessee 14
No. 7 Alabama 41, Tennessee 10
No. 17 South Carolina 38, Tennessee 24
No. 16 Florida 33, Tennessee 23
No. 1 LSU 38, Tennessee 7
No. 2 Alabama 37, Tennessee 6
No. 14 South Carolina 14, Tennessee 3
No. 8 Arkansas 49, Tennessee 7
No. 18 Florida 37, Tennessee 20
No. 5 Georgia 51, Tennessee 44
Have a look at what Bray said about prepping for the Bulldogs this week: