My pick: Tennessee 38, MTSU 17

Write this down: You CANNOT let an underdog gain confidence. If you do, you're in for the fight of your life.

Alabama learned as much last weekend. The Tide jumped to a 22-0 first-quarter lead against Middle Tennessee State but failed to close the deal. The Blue Raiders gradually clawed their way back into the game, pulling within 29-27 with 9:04 remaining. If not for a 41-yard interception return TD by Bama's Freddie Roach, MTSU might have sprung the upset instead of losing 39-34.

So, Tennessee's task is obvious when it hosts Middle Tennessee this Saturday. The Vols have to start quickly, stay focused and take the fight out of the Blue Raiders. Otherwise, they could be hanging on for dear life at game's end ... just as Bama was seven days earlier.

Whereas Tennessee relied on a ''vanilla'' gameplan in Game 1 vs. Wyoming, the Vols probably will open things up a bit this weekend out of respect for MTSU's offensive capabilities. Look for more evidence of the vertical passing game and look for more variety in the running game. Tennessee may need 35 points just to win the game, and the Vol staff seems to recognize this.

The Big Orange defense will be a little more creative this week, as well. Unlike most teams who rely heavily on the shotgun formation, MTSU is primarily a running team. The Blue Raiders boast three of the best rushers Tennessee will face all year in tailbacks Dwone Hicks and Reshard Lee, plus elusive quarterback Andrico Hines.

Here are the keys:

(1) Tennessee must take control of the game early and keep MTSU from seizing the momentum. (2) UT's kicking game must perform at a high level. (2) The Big Orange will need a few nice runs from Cedric Houston and a few more from Jabari Davis. (3) The play of UT's wideouts will be critical. Since MTSU is likely to target Tony Brown, look for a breakout game from Montrell Jones. I know I picked Montrell to break out last week, but the guy's due ... trust me. I also expect Derrick Tinsley to show up big in the passing game. (4) UT needs to substitute freely, enabling its superior depth to wear down MTSU as the game progresses. (5) Tennessee's offense needs to be as mistake-free as last week, when it was guilty of just three penalties, one interception and no fumbles. (6) Look for Tennessee to sell out in an attempt to stop the run. If Hicks and Lee are productive, MTSU will give the Vols fits. If UT can stop the run and force Hines to put the ball in the air 30-40 times, Tennessee should be in good shape.

Make no mistake: MTSU is no slouch. The Blue Raiders gave Alabama a real scare and probably should've won the game. They won't be intimidated and they won't be holding anything back against Tennessee. This is a dangerous opponent -- a relaxed underdog who has everything to win and nothing to lose. The Raiders will play their hearts out and probably hang with the Vols for 20-30 minutes.

Bottom line: MTSU will keep the game interesting for a half, then fade in the face of Tennessee's superior depth and speed. Final score: UT 38, MTSU 17.



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