Confidence growing with Vols 'D'

Big Orange Country remembers just how terrible the 2012 Tennessee defense was compared to one of the more explosive offenses in many years on The Hill. Read about how the Volunteers have improved at slowing down opponents.

Mississippi wasn't completely happy with how its win over Texas A&M last week ended.

Even as the third-ranked Rebels continued their fastest start in over half a century with the 35-20 win, allowing two touchdowns in the last nine minutes of the game left a sour taste in their mouths.

The frustration is an indication of just how far the Rebels' defense has come.

"That was aggravating for us," Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt said. "We really want to be the No. 1 defense in the nation."

They're not far from that goal. Ole Miss allows only 11.8 points per game. Stanford is the lone Football Bowl Subdivision team yielding fewer points per game this season.

Ole Miss (6-0. 3-0 SEC) will try to maintain that pace Saturday when it hosts Tennessee (3-3, 0-2), which has its own vastly improved defense. The Volunteers have allowed fewer than 100 yards passing in their last two games - the first time they've done that since 2002 - and is 16th nationally in total defense and tied for 19th in scoring defense. .

At a time when Southeastern Conference teams are scoring at a record rate, these two programs rely primarily on defense.

"It's definitely a big opportunity," Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "Everyone's been talking about their defense, but we're going to let everybody know that Tennessee's defense is here and we're going to make a statement."

It's unusual for either of these defenses to be considered among the SEC's best.

Ole Miss finished last in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense as recently as 2011. Tennessee finished at the bottom of the conference in both categories in 2012 with a defense that statistically ranked among the worst in school history.

Both defenses improved by using similar formulas. They've boosted their speed, feasted on turnovers and haven't hesitated to play freshmen.

Ole Miss showed its commitment to youth last year when defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and defensive back Tony Conner cracked the starting lineup as freshmen. Both now are key performers as sophomores, with Conner leading the team in tackles.

The Rebels have picked off 12 passes, which ties them for second place among all FBS programs. Before giving up those two late scores against Texas A&M, Ole Miss' defense had scored as many touchdowns (four) as it had given up all season.

Ole Miss is 6-0 for the first time since finishing unbeaten in 1962 because its defense has produced more big plays than it's allowed.

"I've always been a believer from being an offensive coach, if you make an offense have to drive a consistent drive, over and over again for 60-70 yards, we make mistakes on offense," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "You're going to block a look wrong or something. It's very difficult if you don't get explosive plays. When you get explosive plays, those drives get easier. If you really have to grind out first down after first down and then convert in the red zone, it's difficult.

"Our team has given up very few explosive plays and then we've been stingy when it does get in the red zone and made people settle for field goals."

Youth is even more apparent on Tennessee's defense, which starts one freshman (defensive end Derek Barnett) and four sophomores (Reeves-Maybin, nose tackle Danny O"Brien, cornerback Cam Sutton and end Corey Vereen). Six more freshmen have second-team roles. The Vols lack Ole Miss' depth up front and experience across the board, but they're similarly opportunistic.

Tennessee has averaged 6.3 points off turnovers per game since Butch Jones took over the program last year. LSU's the only SEC program that has scored more points off turnovers during that stretch. Tennessee has allowed opponents to convert only 26.4 percent of their third-down situations, which ranks the Vols fifth among all FBS teams.

"I think our entire defense is playing as one unit," Jones said. "They have great confidence right now, but we all know they will be exceptionally challenged Saturday evening."

Jalen Reeves-Maybin speaks about Ole Miss game


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