Big Brother I: Tennessee vs. MTSU

WHAT: Tennessee (1-0) vs. MTSU (0-1)<br> WHEN: Saturday, 7:00 EDT<br> WHERE: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville<br> BROADCAST: Comcast Cable (in Tennessee only)<br> ODDS: Tennessee 22-point favorite<br> SERIES: First ever meeting<p>

GAME OVERVIEW: Only in it's fourth season as a Division I program, Middle Tennessee State University isn't a name that exactly strikes fear in the hearts of big-time programs.

But MTSU's game is another matter all together.

On Saturday, the Blue Raiders put the biggest scare into the folks at Tuscaloosa since NCAA investigators arrived on campus armed with affidavits. Rallying from a 22-0 first-quarter deficit, the Blue Raiders nearly shocked the Crimson Tide before a late defensive touchdown allowed Bama to escape with a 39-34 victory.

Now Andy McCollum's team looks to turn Tennessee's home opener into fright night before 106,000-plus fans at Neyland Stadium. Coming off an 8-3 record last season which included a No. 5 national ranking in total offense (481 yards per game) and a hefty 37.1 scoring average, the Raiders have solid credentials.

They return their offensive line intact and have a pair of excellent running backs in Dwone Hicks and ReShard Lee (5-10, 215). Hicks, 5-11, 225, chose to bypass the NFL Draft in order to return to Murfreesboro for his senior season and has been mentioned as a long-shot Heisman Trophy candidate.

The Raiders offense was so balanced last season that there was only a six-yard difference in their passing yards per game compared to their ground attack. Gone is quarterback Wes Counts who directed the 2001 offense to a school record for yards and points. In his place is red-shirt junior Andrico Hines (6-3, 221) who transferred from Southwest Mississippi Junior College has had a year to learn the offense.

MTSU isn't as strong on the defensive side of the ledger as evidenced by their 430 yards and 32 points surrendered to Alabama. They do return six starters and have added several JC players to a suspect secondary. The Raiders run a 3-3 stack defense that allows them to take advantage of their quickness up front while deploying a variety of blitzes and stunts.

Their objective against the Vols will be to confused quarterback Casey Clausen and to apply pressure through a combination of deception and quickness. Clausen had plenty of time to throw in UT's opener against Wyoming, but ran the ball six times when he couldn't find an open receiver. That remains a concern this week with Kelley Washington again sidelined and a young receiving crops still learning on the job.

But Clausen is a savvy signal caller with a quick release and uncanny accuracy. He's led numerous comebacks in his two seasons as a starter and is unlikely to come unglued against any college team.

UT's offensive line is outstanding and its stable of running backs, which includes four high school all-Americans, is versatile and capable. Tight end Jason Witten poses problems for any defense with his size and speed and the UT"s young receivers are showing signs of coming of age. Tony Brown was particularly impressive with seven catches for 77 yards and several others appear ready for breakout performances. C.J. Fayton may be the best overall talent among the fledgling pass catchers and Jomo Fagan, who scored the Vols first touchdown of the season on a 19-yard reception, has been a pleasant early surprise. Montrell Jones is another high school all-American who needs to step his game up while true freshman Jonathan Wade may be ready to see his first action after suffering a preseason shoulder injury. Wade has world class speed and his mere presence forces defenses to make adjustments. Senior Leonard Scott sprain an ankle against Wyoming but has been cleared duty against the Blue Raiders.

Tennessee's combination of speed at wide receiver and strength in the backfield will be a test for a MTSU defense that was torched for 45 points by Ole Miss last season. The Raiders will attempt to keep the Vols off balance with multiple looks and an assortment of stunts, but also run the risk of being blasted up the middle by quick hitters.

GAME KEYS: A bigger challenge for Tennessee will be shutting down a MTSU offense that is well conceived and highly diverse. The Raiders will give the Vols a lot of looks and have true running threats at all three backfield positions.

The real key will be Tennessee's discipline against the multitude of misdirection plays that MTSU will likely pull out in an effort to minimize the Vols aggressive style and neutralize their speed advantage.

Despite the Raiders' skill and size in the backfield and their experience along the offensive front, they can't line up and sustain long drives against a run defense that is perennially among the nation's leaders verses a slate loaded with heavyweights. Instead they have to keep John Chavis' troops guessing by mixing a variety of looks and changes of pace.

Establishing a running game is the key to MTSU's offensive success while stopping the run is the critical to UT's defense. The Vols want to force undesirable down-and-distance situations and the Raiders have to stay with the run even if it doesn't meet with initial success.

You simply can't be one-dimensional on offense and beat Tennessee.

The Vols also want to establish the run to set up the pass, particularly the play-action variety, which was conspicuously absent against Wyoming. MTSU knows this as well and will likely commit the personnel needed to shut down UT's between-the-tackles power game.

That approach will place a lot of pressure on the Raiders linebackers to perform and will create big-play opportunities on the flanks for Tennessee. Once the Vols have exacted a price for MTSU's commitment to stopping the run, they need to continue pounding the ball inside to activate the fatigue factor and to take advantage of their superior depth.

Despite an 8-3 mark in 2001, MTSU had a minus-4 turnover ratio compared to UT's plus-5. The Vols forced five turnovers against Wyoming and the secondary appears poised for a big season after picking off three passes. Any turnovers the Vols can force will rob the Raiders of more than the football. It will also take energy needed to keep the game close and will be particularly draining if UT can put points on the board.

SUMMARY: MTSU's comeback pushed Alabama to the wall last week but it may have also created problems the Raiders hadn't anticipated.

First, it altered the Vols to the fact they can't mail in an effort against a potential instate giant killer. Alabama may well have started looking ahead to this week's game against Oklahoma after going up 22-0. UT knows Florida is up next, but also realizes it can't afford the luxury of looking ahead. Their mantra has to be "Remember the SEC title game." Next week's open date should also help offset such a temptation.

The big question about the Raiders is whether they have the emotional reserve to go toe-to-toe on the road against two SEC powerhouses on consecutive weeks? Judging from last year's big losses at Ole Miss, and LSU three weeks later they don't.

PREDICTION: Tennessee 44, MTSU 14


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