Devil's Advocate

Welcome to Devil's Advocate — Inside Tennessee's version of punch/counter punch — where each week analysts Randy Moore and Jeffery Stewart choose their sideline and make their cases for our readers' regular amusement and occasional edification.



Mississippi State beat Auburn 19-14.

Auburn beat Florida 20-17.

Florida beat Tennessee 59-20.

Do the math: Mississippi State projects to be 47 points better than Tennessee this Saturday in Starkville. Oh, yeah, the home field is worth seven points, so that makes the Bulldogs a 54-point favorite against the Vols.

Yeah, I know. That argument's hysterical. So here's one that's historical.

Tennessee's defense does not fare well against big, bruising tailbacks. Tony Hunt, a 6-1, 240-pounder from Penn State, pillaged the Vols for 158 yards on 31 carries last January in the Outback Bowl. Mississippi State has a 6-1, 240-pounder of its own in Anthony Dixon. Dixon ran for 152 yards vs. UAB last Saturday and leads the SEC in both carries (138) and rushing touchdowns (9). He's fourth among SEC backs in net yards (586).

Tennessee's defense does not fare well against physical offensive lines. Arkansas, LSU and Penn State proved that last fall, and Florida underscored the point this fall, dominating the trenches en route to a lopsided victory. Mississippi State's isn't the most talented blocking front the Vols will face this fall but it might be the most physical.

Tennessee's offense struggles against teams that shut down the run. The 2006 Vols managed minus-11 yards vs. Florida, 62 vs. LSU, 92 vs. Arkansas and 83 vs. Penn State – losing each time. They compiled just 37 rushing yards in this year's game with Florida and lost by 39 points. Mississippi State limited UAB to 71 rushing yards last weekend and has not allowed an opposing rusher to top 100 yards in the past 12 games ... not even Arkansas's Darren McFadden.

Tennessee's offense struggles against complex defensive schemes that force the Vols' young receivers to make reads and adjustments on the run. Tennessee managed just 13 offensive points against a Florida scheme that is no harder to face than the Bulldogs'.

Tennessee historically struggles in "sandwich games" – facing a low-profile foe sandwiched between two high-profile opponents. The 2006 Vols barely beat Air Force 31-30 in a game sandwiched between Cal and Florida. The 2005 Vols lost at home to South Carolina in a game sandwiched between No. 5 Alabama and No. 8 Notre Dame. With No. 12 Georgia in the rearview mirror and arch-rival Alabama next on the schedule, Mississippi State definitely qualifies as a sandwich game.

Finally, Sylvester Croom is developing a reputation as a giant-killer. He beat Florida at Starkville in 2004, costing Ron Zook his job. He beat Alabama at Tuscaloosa last season, costing Mike Shula his job. He shocked Auburn at Auburn earlier this season, costing Tommy Tuberville some support.

If you're Phillip Fulmer, you probably find that somewhat disconcerting.



If Tennessee can attest to anything approaching the midway point of the 2007 season, it's what a remarkable difference a week can make.

In the course of a single day the Vols surpassed the .500 mark for the first time this fall, jumped back into the Top 25 rankings and landed directly in the driver's seat of the SEC East Division.

They also know that a letdown and a loss to Mississippi State would wipe out all the opportunities and good will gained in the sweeping victory over Georgia. No more winning record, no more top 25 and no more direct drive to Atlanta. The loss of good will to the fan base would also be a huge setback as what Johnny Majors once referred to as the "legions of the miserable" morph into the masses of the enraged.

Talk about a costly defeat, a setback in Starkville would be on the order of the Volunteers' momentous loss to Memphis in 1996. It would be a big blow to the current season and it would slow a recruiting campaign that is already in low gear.

With those kind of stakes Tennessee's attention has to be firmly riveted on Mississippi State which is probably better than the Georgia team the Vols just defeated and the Alabama team on the horizon. In fact Sylvester Croom's crew upset both Georgia and Alabama last season on the road.

For whatever reason the Bulldogs haven't been nearly as dangerous in Starkville. In 2006 they went 1-6 at home with loses to Auburn, South Carolina, Tulane, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas and they were crushed in the 2007 season opener by LSU 45-0. The last time the Dogs beat an SEC team at home was in 2005 against Ole MIss. In 2004 they lost a home game to Maine, 9-7. In 2002 and 2003 they were a combined 1-7 vs. SEC opponents at Wade Stadium.

Tennessee has lost four of its last five games away from Neyland Stadium but has a long tradition of playing well on the road in the SEC, including a 35-17 victory over Mississippi State in 2002 behind a true freshman QB who later became a wide receiver.

When you put the Xs and Os to this contest you can see the Vols could have trouble stopping MSU's power run, but you can also see a huge advantage at quarterback for UT. Tennessee will be able to crowd the line of scrimmage and deploy run blitzes to destroy the timing of the Dogs' ground game. MSU doesn't have that luxury with Ainge completing 66 percent of his passes. In effect the Dogs are too one-dimensional to beat a defense that has the speed to cover the pass and still swarm the ball.

Furthermore football is a game of momentum and the Vols have the lion's share of Mo in this match-up.  

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