My pick: UT 34, Miss. State 10

Duke was playing miserable football earlier this season but fired head coach Carl Franks, elevated assistant Ted Roof to interim coach and suddenly jelled. The Blue Devils scared North Carolina State and Tennessee, then hammered Georgia Tech last weekend.

Perhaps the hapless Mississippi State Bulldogs (2-7 overall, 1-5 SEC) should try the same ploy this weekend -- firing head coach Jackie Sherrill and elevating an assistant to the top job. That might be MSU's best chance to beat Tennessee Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

It's true that the Vols haven't dominated an opponent since thumping Wyoming 47-7 in last season's opener. It's true they have an offense that can put you to sleep quicker than Sominex. It's true that Tennessee tends to play down to the level of inferior opponents. Still, the Big Orange should be able to score a KO against a Mississippi State team that has its back to the ropes and is still groggy following last weekend's 38-0 loss to Alabama.

Some observers say the Bulldogs have quit on Sherrill. Certainly, losing by 38 on your home field to a team as mediocre as the Tide tends to support this claim.

Whether the Dogs have quit or not, though, Tennessee should win handily this weekend. The Vol offense has struggled all fall but it will be facing an MSU defense that ranks dead last among SEC teams in scoring defense (36.6 points per game), rushing defense (187.2 yards per game), pass efficiency defense (153.4 rating), total defense (468.0 yards per game), opponent's first downs (213) and opponent's third-down conversion rate (39.8 percent).

The Bulldogs are only slightly better on offense, ranking 12th among SEC programs in rushing (123.0 yards per game) and third-down conversions (19.8 percent), while placing 11th in scoring (22.0 points per game), total offense (349.0 yards per game) and pass efficiency (114.5 rating).

In short, this is a program on the decline. Tennessee, meanwhile, is a program on the rise. The Vols played their best game of the season last weekend vs. Miami. The brightest of bright spots in that outing was the turnover margin. UT's offense committed zero turnovers, while its defense forced four TOs by the Hurricanes.

Four turnovers in one game is pretty amazing, when you consider that Tennessee forced just nine turnovers in the first eight games. The question is: What happened in Game 9 that didn't happen in the previous eight outings?

''It boils down to players being more aggressive, being in better position in the passing game, believing (in the scheme) and playing with more confidence,'' defensive coordinator John Chavis says. ''I think that's what we did last week, and that's what we've got to continue to do if we're going to have success.''

I believe the coach will get his wish and the Vols will continue forcing turnovers this week. I base this on the fact Mississippi State ranks dead last among SEC teams in turnover margin, too.

My pick: Tennessee 34, MSU 10.


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