Their only common opponents to this point in the campaign are Auburn and Alabama. Tennessee lost to Auburn by seven points (28-21) and beat Alabama by eight (51-43 in five OTs). MSU lost to Auburn by 32 (45-13) and to Bama by 38 (38-0).
If you believe in seasonal ebb and surges this one looks like a classic mismatch. Add a historical trend that has seen the Vols go 70-4 in the month of November since 1985 and it looks like a Tennessee Waltz. By the way, over that same period of time, UT is 40-2 in November home games with both losses coming against No. 1 ranked teams. Not surprisingly, the Big Orange has been installed as a 24-point favorite over the Dogs.
Mississippi State will be bucking the odds and a lot of history in its attempt to spring an upset, but the greatest obstacle the Bulldogs have to overcome is a mindset that says this season is over and next season we'll have a new coach. In fact, since Jackie Sherrill announced he would retire effective at the end of the 2003 season, Mississippi State has lost three games by a total of 95 points. That's hardly like facing Nebraska in the Orange Bowl at the end of the 1997 season.
The opportunity is there for the Vols to come out strong, establish a ground game, grab a quick lead and put together that long sought after "complete game" that has eluded them this season. It's also a chance to score an impressive victory at home where they have struggled the last two years losing four games by a combined score of 141 to 44.
An impressive victory is also important in terms of national perception which impacts the polls and, in turn, the BCS standings that may ultimately decide the East Division tiebreaker.
Regardless of the pairings for the SEC Championship game, the Vols need a strong finish to restore prestige to a program that has suffered its share of stinging setbacks since the loss to LSU in the 2001 conference title match. A 10-win regular season record and a high-profile bowl game would energize the upcoming recruiting campaign which is vital for Tennessee to regain, or maintain, its status as a national contender.
A Mississippi State team that is limited offensively, suspect defensively and absent emotionally gives Tennessee a chance to put together a dominating performance on both sides of the ball. Vol backs should be able to find holes up front and freshman Arron Sears could flourish at right tackle in place of the injured Sean Young.
Tennessee's young receiving corps should find favorable match-ups in a MSU secondary that has been assaulted for over 280 yards per game this season. In short: the Vols should be able to achieve a balance on offense that's needed to make play action effective and that will open the door to big plays.
The Vols need to build on a pair of strong defensive performances that limited Duke and Miami to a pair of field goals each. It's also important they continue to take care of the football (no turnovers since the first half vs. Alabama) and get back in black on the turnover ledger.
UT is also as healthy as it has been all year with both Rashad Baker and Brett Smith expected to return to action. Likewise, the Vols have a competitive situation at tailback that assures they'll keep fresh and highly motivated ball carriers in the contest.
A team either gets better or it gets worse, but it never stays the same. The guess here is that the Vols will be primed to build on last week's victory with a big win before an appreciative home crowd that is ready to embrace the Vols as conquering heroes.
Prediction: Tennessee 41, Mississippi State 3.