By Randy Moore
The so-called experts think Mississippi State has no chance to beat Tennessee this weekend. Of course, those same experts (including me) thought Tennessee had no chance to beat Miami LAST weekend, and look how that turned out ...
This is just one of several reasons I think the Bulldogs have a legitimate shot at putting the squeeze on the Big Orange this Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Here are some more:
• Tennessee is coming off a huge upset of the No. 6 Hurricanes, who were a 13-point favorite. The last time the Vols scored a similarly monumental upset -- beating No. 2 Florida two years ago when the Gators were an 18-point favorite -- UT fell flat against a shorthanded LSU team the very next week. So, this wouldn't be the first time Tennessee lost its focus after a big win.
• Tennessee still has an outside chance to earn a spot in the SEC Championship Game and a BCS bowl bid. For that to happen, though, the Vols must win their last three games decisively and/or hope Auburn beats Georgia Saturday in Athens. This could prove distracting. If Tennessee's players spend Saturday afternoon (a) trying to score a lot of points to pad their BCS ranking or (b) watching the scoreboard, they not only could lose ... they SHOULD lose.
• Tennessee has struggled to contain quality running backs all season. Auburn's Cadillac Williams, South Carolina's Demetris Summers and Alabama's Shaud Williams looked like the second coming of Walter Payton against UT. Mississippi State has two tailbacks, Jerious Norwood and Nick Turner -- who are shifty enough to give the Vols fits. And, if the Vols focus too much attention on stopping the run, QB Kevin Fant ranks No. 2 on MSU's all-time passing list. And the Bulldogs have a receiver (Justin Jenkins) who UT head man Phillip Fulmer says ''would be one of our top three or four players.''
• Mississippi State's players have nothing to lose. They're coming off a 38-0 shellacking at the hands of Alabama, and you can't get any looser than that.
• Tennessee hasn't played well in back-to-back games all season. Why would you expect the Vols to start now?
I'll grant you that Tennessee looked pretty good last weekend against Miami. The defense caused four turnovers. Casey Clausen threw the ball exceptionally well. The ground game showed some spark.
But let's not get too excited. Consider:
• The same UT defense that forced four turnovers last weekend had forced just nine TOs in the eight previous games combined.
• Although Clausen threw the ball well, his receivers didn't catch it well. As offensive coordinator Randy Sanders noted earlier this week: ''We've had too many drops the last two weeks. Casey was 11 of 18 last week but we counted five drops, so he had a chance to be 16 of 18.''
• Sanders also had a ready response when asked why the ground game looked better vs. the Hurricanes than expected: ''They had two D-tackles hurt, and that probably had something to do with it. And Miami wasn't a team that committed their secondary to stopping the run.'' Is Mississippi State a good football team? No. The Bulldogs are lousy. And they tanked it when Alabama hit them with some early scores last weekend. So, a quick start by Tennessee could produce similar results this weekend. But when's the last time UT hit an underdog with some early scores and went on to win convincingly?
Don't worry. I can't remember it, either.
Why Vols Will Pound Dogs
By: Jeffery Stewart
I couldn't agree more with my esteemed colleague that looking past any opponent is a mistake few teams can get away with in an era when the college playing field is more level than ever. And Tennessee is not among those select few who can mail in a performance.
But the Vols are playing better, and in light of Duke's big win over Georgia Tech last week, Tennessee has put together three good games. The Vols five overtime victory at Tuscaloosa also looks better seeing that Alabama is the only team this season to give No. 1 Oklahoma a game before falling 20-17.
Last week's upset of Miami in the Orange Bowl is impressive even though the Hurricanes were not at full strength. The Vols flipped the turnover ratio that has plagued them all season at the right time. The thing that was really stood out about the 4-0 turnover edge is that none of the miscues were gifts. Two resulted from hits on quarterback Brock Berlin. Kevin Simon's diving interception was pure gold. Ditto for the pressure punt by Dustin Colquitt and the outstanding hustle by Derrick Tinsley that denied the Canes a final shot at a comeback. Although the hit by Jason Allen on Kellen Winslow that jarred the ball loose didn't result in a turnover, it was indicative of the type of physical play required to produced them. It may be a sign the Vols defense has found its stinger and is coming of age.
Meanwhile Tennessee's offense continues to struggle, even though the Vols did a better job of ball security and ball control against Miami. However neither the aerial attack or ground game produced 100 yards vs. the Hurricanes and the lack of consistency and production remains an ongoing concern.
Now the Vols enter a stretch against the three lowest ranked rush defenses in the SEC which will be an opportunity for the offense to establish the running game that is essential to their success, and develop the confidence that it has been lacking.
• Mississippi State is last in the conference against the run, giving up a generous 187.2 yards per game. The Vols have won 56 of the last 59 games in which they have rushed for 200 yards. If they are able to rush for only 150 yards against Mississippi State, it will enable them to use play action and create big plays in the passing game.
• Likewise, the Vols have had problems stopping the run as six backs have reached 100 yards in the last six games. However Chavis' troops have demonstrated better discipline in recent games and are closing on the ball more consistently. It's true the Bulldogs do have a couple of good runners, but as a team they are last in the SEC, averaging just 123 yards a game.
• They Bulldogs are also last in conference in total defense, surrendering a hefty 468 yards per contest.
• They are next to last in the league in total offense with 349 yards per game and they are last in passing defense efficiency.
• Mississippi State is fifth in the SEC in passing offense, averaging 226 yards per game, but that number is skewed by the fact the Bulldogs have been forced to pass in an effort to overcome large deficits in most of the their games this season.
• To make matters worse, the Bulldogs are also the conference's most penalized club.
The Vols haven't gotten off to quick starts in this season, which could be a problem against a team like Mississippi State that needs something good to happen early if it is to have any chance. But even with a good start, you've got to wonder if the Bulldogs would respond to the positive fallout, especially given the way they folded against Alabama last week in a 35-0 loss. That was a home game verses lame duck head coach Jackie Sherrill's alma mater and the Dogs showed no inclination to dig down deep. Similarly, the Bulldogs got up on Kentucky 17-0 on the road early this season only to lose 42-17.
It's true the Vols did perform poorly after upsetting Florida in the 2001 regular season finale, but that was against LSU in the SEC Championship game. MSU is a different story and fans can count on the Vols writing a different ending.