The Rebels are catching the Vols at a good time again this weekend. Tennessee is coming off an emotional win at No. 4 LSU in overtime on a Monday night. The Vols not only have a short week to prepare for the Rebels, but UT plays Georgia next week.
It's a trap game for Tennessee.
``No,'' said secondary coach Larry Slade. ``Our guys are focused on Ole Miss. They realize what kind of challenge it's going to be. They have a quarterback that's outstanding, that can scramble and make big plays. They have a wide receiver, Mario Hill, that's outstanding. That gets their attention.
``Certainly, you can look at it the other way. You have problems when you have great success because you start looking ahead. But we're ready for it.''
Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said he's eager to find out how the Vols will respond.
``We've never been in this situation before, the way it was thrust upon us,'' said Sanders. ``In the NFL, they play a Thanksgiving game on Thursday, but they know it months ahead, so they're able to plan and prepare for it, whereas this one kind of jumped up on us.''
It jumped up because the LSU-Tennessee game was postponed two days before the game from Saturday to Monday night. UT coaches spent last weekend making plans for Ole Miss.
In an odd twist, the Vols open SEC play with three SEC teams that have a new head coach. That's been a unique challenge.
Ole Miss fired former UT assistant David Cutcliffe in favor of Ed Orgeron, recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach at Southern Cal.
Another new coach, another new scheme, another guessing game.
But in Sanders' mind, that's better than going against Cutcliffe, a close friend who knows UT's system inside and out.
``No doubt,'' Sanders said when asked if he's glad Cutcliffe isn't on the Ole Miss sideline. ```And it wasn't just David Cutcliffe. You had (former Vols) Marion Hobby and Thomas Woods, and (former UT graduate assistant) Kurt Roper. There was a definite Tennessee flavor to that staff. We ran, in many ways, basically the same offense. A lot of checks were the same, a lot of terminology was similar.
``Also, their defense was the best scout team in the world because they went against the same offense every day.''
Some at Tennessee might feel extra motivation to prove Ole Miss made a mistake by firing Cutcliffe, a UT assistant for 17 years.
But the better motivation is to remain in the SEC race. Any slip up could prove costly and nullify the marvelous comeback win over LSU. Only twice in the past 20 years - and perhaps in UT history - have the Vols rallied from a deficit of more than 21 points and won: 1991 at Notre Dame (31-7) and 1987 against Vanderbilt (28-3). Never had UT won when trailing by 17 in the fourth quarter.
A key to the comeback was conditioning. Tennessee was clearly the fresher team in the second half. UT didn't have one player undergo an IV for fluids, LSU had four.
In addition to being well conditioned, Tennessee smartly rotated players.
Offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens said UT had to strike a blend to make sure the team would be ready mentally and physically.
``The only way you can be tough as an offensive line is to practice tough,'' Stephens said. ``At the same time, you've go to be fresh. You can't beat them up and be too tired.''
Four Tennessee offensive linemen - Albert Toeaina, Arron Sears, Rob Smith and Cody Douglas - played at least 75 snaps. Douglas wouldn't have made the trip if the game had been Saturday, yet he played his best game as a Vol, he said.
Sanders said the Ole Miss defensive scheme is completely different from the Rebels' scheme of a year ago but bears a similarity to the LSU scheme.
``Ole Miss has some different wrinkles,'' Sanders said. ``They've got nine starters returning from a defense we thought was pretty good. They have a really good front. The defensive tackles are pretty good. The corners are very good. They've got a couple of new guys at linebacker. It will be a big challenge, especially trying to bounce back on a short week.''
A defense designed to stop the run hasn't fared so well, allowing 372 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the last two games to Vanderbilt and Wyoming.
Ole Miss is without its best defensive player. Linebacker Patrick Willis of Bruceton has a sprained MCL on his left knee. Tackle Michael Boykin is an All-SEC candidate. Garry Pack was a highly recruited linebacker. Travis Johnson and Trumaine McSwain are good corners.
Ole Miss has struggled on offense. Athletic Michael Spurlock has a history of being inconsistent and he's playing with a broken finger on his left (non-throwing) hand. Freshman running back Mico McSawain has given the offense a lift with his 114-yard effort on just seven carries against Wyoming.
Here is a unit by unit breakdown.
Quarterback: Rick Clausen gets the nod for UT but don't expect a 250-yard passing game. Spurlock scrambles better than he passes. UT must keep him in the pocket. Edge: UT.
Running backs: Gerald Riggs could dominant. Edge: UT
Receivers: UT's group has underachieved but did play well in the second half at LSU. Mario Hill is a talent for Rebels. Edge: UT
Offensive line: Vols should be Richie Gandy back. This is an Ole Miss weakness. Edge: UT
Defensive line: UT has the best front four in the SEC. Edge: UT.
Linebackers: Kevin Simon looks to be regaining his form. Ole Miss is without its best player, Willis. Edge: UT
Special teams: UT showed dramatic improvement against LSU. Ole Miss has four kickers on scholarship, but a walk-on gets the nod against UT. Edge: UT
Intangibles: UT is coming off emotional road win with a short turnaround and Georgia up next. Ole Miss is playing a top 10 team with nothing to lose. Edge: Ole Miss.
Prediction: Tennessee 23, Ole Miss 10.