Mississippi State is looking for its first SEC victory of the season after dropping games by 28 points to Auburn, 18 to LSU, 24 to South Carolina, 21 to Kentucky and 14 to Alabama. Tennessee is aiming to level it's mark in the SEC at 3-3 and hoping to get win No. 6 which would qualify the Vols for a bowl game. More significantly, Tennessee is striving to get its offense on track for a strong stretch run that could end with a respectable 9-4 record. History favors the Vols who are an impressive 47-1 since 1985 in November SEC games.
Will either team be able to score in this contest? The Vols are averaging a modest 23.3 points scoring per game this season which includes UT's 47-7 triumph to start the season and a 41-38 six-overtime victory over Arkansas. Mississippi State is doing even worse, scoring at a pace of 19.9 points per game. Both teams have been built around the run and neither has had much success this season. Tennessee averages 142.6 on the ground per contest (eighth in the SEC) while the Bulldogs average 122.9. The team that can establish the most consistency running the football will likely prevail. That might not be easy given that the strength of each defense is stopping the run. Mississippi State's scrambling, stunting, blitzing 3-3 defensive scheme, as designed and directed by Joe Lee Dunn, could play havoc with the Vols who are likely to be led by true freshman James Banks at quarterback. Tennessee did well against a similar defensive scheme run by South Carolina, but that was with Casey Clausen at quarterback. The Bulldogs should have an advantage if this game comes down to a late field goal with place kicker Brent Smith who has hit 11-of-15 including a 52-yard boot. Coincidentally, the last time the Vols lost four games in the regular season, one of those defeats was at Mississippi State.
How will Tennessee's true freshmen play on the road in the SEC? The Vols are counting on production from a number of true freshmen including: Banks at quarterback, Jonathan Wade at wide receiver, Marvin Mitchell and Omar Gaither at linebacker, Greg Jones at defensive tackle, Jon Mapu at defensive end, Cody Douglas at offensive tackle, Rob Smith at guard and, perhaps, Gerald Riggs Jr. at running back. Vols need these first-year players to step up and perform like veterans. It might be asking too much, but there's enough talent among those rookies to turn the tide of this battle. Banks, especially, must rein in his running instincts and try to excel within the parameters of the offensive game plan. A week to work with the first unit and a game plan tailored to his talents should help.
This is a tough test for a Tennessee team that has taken its share of lumps in 2002. How much resiliency do the Vols left have after suffering an unconscionable series of injuries and one-sided losses? Coach Phillip Fulmer's track record facing adverse circumstances is very good and the guess here is that the Vols will regroup for a solid effort. Turnovers will play a key. Tennessee is even in the critical turnover-takeaway ratio this season with 18 each and must establish an advantage in the miscue department to create some quick scoring opportunities. Tennessee didn't turn the ball over against Miami last week while holding the Hurricanes to their lowest scoring total of the season. That bodes well for this week when they'll face a team not nearly as strong on either side of the ball. There are times this year when Tennessee hasn't really responded to a challenge and competed in its accustomed manner, but there's no sign the Vols have ever quit. Mississippi State only scored 11 points at home against Troy State which indicates they will need help from the defense or Tennessee's offense to post enough points to a win on Saturday. If the Vols don't comply, they should survive.
Tennessee 20, Mississippi State 10.