Devil's Advocate: UT vs. Ole Miss

Welcome to Devil's Advocate — Inside Tennessee's version of point/counterpoint — where each week analysts Randy Moore and Jeffery Stewart take opposite sides of the field to make their case for our readers' regular amusement and occasional edification.


By: Randy Moore

When Tennessee ended an 11-year losing streak to Alabama by stunning the second-ranked Tide 35-28 in 1982, Vol coach Johnny Majors had an uneasy feeling about the next game. His players were so high following the big win he feared they might have trouble focusing on the upcoming road contest against lightly regarded Georgia Tech.

When the Vols showed up for practice the Monday after the Bama game, they found a platform covered with blankets and a sheet.

''This is Cloud 9,'' Majors explained. ''I want each one of you to jump down off of it, then we'll be down off Cloud 9 and we'll start getting ready to play Georgia Tech.''

Some players stared in disbelief. Some rolled their eyes. Some snickered. But all of them eventually mounted the platform, then jumped down.

That incident may seem silly two decades later, but it underscores a key point: Majors recognized that a team coming off an emotional high risks hitting an emotional low in its next game.

The '82 Vols learned that lesson the hard way. Despite the melodramatic ''Cloud 9'' warning, they traveled to Georgia Tech five days later and lost 31-21.

No doubt, Phillip Fulmer remembers it well. He was UT's offensive line coach that year. Now that he's Tennessee's head man, he must be experiencing the same uneasy feeling heading into the Ole Miss game that Majors experienced heading into the Georgia Tech game 22 years earlier. The situations are virtually identical.

Tennessee recently ended a four-year losing streak to Georgia by stunning the third-ranked Bulldogs 19-14. Now the high-flying Vols must try to shift their focus to the upcoming road contest against lightly regarded Ole Miss.

Can the Rebels bring the Vols crashing back to earth? Sure. Anyone who follows SEC football knows the unexpected happens all the time in this league. Last weekend is a prime example.

Who expected Tennessee, coming off a 24-point homefield loss to Auburn, to knock off No. 3 Georgia in Athens? Who expected LSU, coming off a 29-point loss to Auburn, to knock off No. 12 Florida in Gainesville? Who expected Ole Miss, 2-3 and mired in mediocrity, to knock off No. 25 South Carolina in Columbia?

There are plenty of other reasons to believe Ole Miss can give Tennessee fits this weekend:

• Ole Miss head man David Cutcliffe spent six years as UT's offensive coordinator, so he knows virtually every move Phil Fulmer, John Chavis and Randy Sanders will make Saturday night in Oxford. And knowledge IS power. You're wondering: Don't Fulmer, Chavis and Sanders know everything Cutcliffe will do? Not necessarily. Cutcliffe doesn't call the offensive plays or the defensive alignments for Ole Miss. His coordinators do, and they're both strangers to Fulmer, Chavis and Sanders.

• Ole Miss has enough firepower to hurt the Vols. Ethan Flatt has a sizzling 185.4 passer-efficiency rating; he is at least as capable a passer as Auburn's Jason Campbell, who lit up the Big Orange like a Christmas tree just two weeks ago. Granted, Georgia's David Greene had an off day against UT last week, but remember how effortlessly mobile backup D.J. Shockley burned the Vols when he came off the bench? Ole Miss has TWO mobile backups in Michael Spurlock and Robert Lane. The fact Tennessee's secondary finally went one game without being riddled doesn't mean all of the pass-defense problems have been solved.

• Ole Miss has a more consistent kicking game. Jonathan Nichols leads the SEC with 13 field goals in 18 attempts for a 72.2 percentage. Conversely, UT's James Wilhoit is 4 of 9 for 44.4 percent. Ole Miss averages 23.5 yards on kickoff returns to UT's paltry 18.4. Ole Miss even has a better punting average (43.0 to 42.3).

• The only area in which Ole Miss is deficient is on defense. The Rebels allow 394 yards and 26 points per game. But Cutcliffe's intimate knowledge of UT's offensive schemes and tendencies should help considerably in that regard.

Clearly, this is a game Tennessee can lose. The Vols had better not roll into Oxford until they've come down from Cloud 9.

Right, Johnny?



Yeah, I remember Coach Majors' psychological gimmick aimed at focusing his team after its monumental win over Alabama that ended an 11-game losing streak. I also remember the team. It lost to Duke in Knoxville to start the 1982 campaign and lost to Vanderbilt to end the regular season slate. In fact, it was the last Tennessee team to lose to Vanderbilt. It lost the Peach Bowl, too.

However, the 1982 team also beat Ole Miss in Jackson, Miss., by a score of 31-17. It is one of 12 victories the Vols have had in the last 13 games against the Rebels. During those games which span 23 years, Tennessee has defeated Mississippi in six times in Knoxville, three times in Jackson, twice in Memphis and once in Oxford. Whether at home, on the road, or in between, Tennessee has held a commanding edge in this series.

The reason Tennessee has had the upper hand in this series over the last couple of decades is simple — Tennessee had the lion's share of football talent. That's normally the case when the SEC's upper half meets the SEC's other half. It's the same reason UT has double digit win streaks against South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

That's not to say Tennessee couldn't lose to any of those teams, just that it hasn't happened since 1992 when the Vols lost by a point to South Carolina in Columbia. Tennessee last lost to Ole Miss, 13-10, in 1983. Of course, these teams haven't played each other on an annual basis since the conference subdivided, so there's not the same acrimony that exists between programs that clash every year.

That tends to work in the favorite's favor as underdogs have less emotional fire to draw from. It could also be an advantage playing this game in Oxford instead of Knoxville where the Vols would be more likely to overlook the Rebels. Going on the road, especially to a city and stadium it's never played before, should keep UT frosty.

The Vols also realize the first sweep of Georgia and Florida since 1998, won't mean a thing without closing the deal against five conference foes they will be favored to beat. Loosely translated that means Ole Miss is as big as any game Tennessee has left on its schedule.

Much has been written about Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe being the Vols former offensive coordinator. There's no question Cutcliffe knows UT's system, but so does every other coach in the SEC. The Vols have essentially run the same offense for 20 years.

There are always modifications to accommodate the various strengths of existing personnel but the plays are more or less the same. When UT's offense works it's not because it surprises people, it's because it overpowers them at the point of attack. It works because it's adaptable to game conditions and opponent's tactics. It works because players execute and talent prevails.

That's not to say Tennessee is going to announce its play selection ahead of time. Randy Sanders will change some alignments and run plays from different sets than he normally uses. In truth, playing Cutcliffe could be an advantage because UT knows what he might be expecting and will do more to disguise it than usual. Bottom-line: guessing wrong can have dangerous consequences whether it's because you know too little, or know too much.

Besides, Ole Miss has enough problems on defense without having to play a shell game to boot. The Rebels rank 11th in the conference in total defense and 10th in the conference in run defense, despite playing the likes of Vanderbilt, Wyoming and Arkansas State.

Any guesses what Tennessee might do?

Inside Tennessee Top Stories