By: RANDY MOORE
A lot of Tennessee fans are complaining that the Vol offense is not showing any improvement this fall. I beg to differ.
The Big Orange scored 12 points in Game 4 at Auburn, 13 points in Game 5 vs. Northern Illinois and 14 points in Game 6 at Georgia. That means the Vols are on pace to score 15 points this weekend against Mississippi State. However, I see a veritable "breakout game" for the attack unit ... 20 points.
Seriously, Tennessee's offensive ugliness has gone on long enough. That's why I predict all of the following will happen Saturday night at Neyland Stadium:
• The Vols will shock Mississippi State by throwing a pass to H-back Brandon Warren.
• One of the wide receivers not named Denarius Moore – I'm not sure which one – will actually make a play at some point Saturday evening.
Oh, sure, Mississippi State limited Auburn to three points on Sept. 13 and upset No. 13 Vanderbilt 17-14 last weekend. But those games were played in the cowbell capitol of The South – Starkville. Saturday's game is being played in Knoxville, where Tennessee is averaging a relatively robust 18.0 points per game this fall.
With tough tests looming against second-ranked Alabama (Oct. 25) and at South Carolina (Nov. 1), Tennessee must beat Mississippi State or risk going winless in SEC play this season. Fear can be quite a motivator, which is why Phillip Fulmer and his team will give their best effort to date Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
BEWARE THE DOGS
Hard to believe these programs squared off for the SEC Championship nearly 10 years ago in Atlanta, but are now at the bottom of the standings in their respective divisions.
Mississippi State (2-4) did get off the snide last week with an win over then undefeated Vanderbilt in Starkville, and thus has some momentum coming into this game as well as some confidence. Moreover the Bulldogs have a solid defense which held Auburn and Vanderbilt to a combined 17 points. The Bulldogs have upgraded their secondary talent dramatically safeties Derek Pegus and Keith Fitzhugh are among the top duos in the league and the entire defense is fast and athletic. It returns eight starters from last season's 8-5 squad.
This is also a team that has probably won more big games on the road in recent years than it has at home. Last year the Bulldogs knocked off Auburn, 19-14, and Kentucky, 31-14, on the road. In 2006 the Croom's crew defeated Alabama in Tuscaloosa, 24-16, and taking Georgia to the limit before falling 27-24.
The Bulldogs will not be intimidated playing in Neyland Stadium especially if their defense keeps the crowd out of the game, or better yet frustrates fans and brings the boo birds out.
With both defenses better than the offenses this one figures to be a close game. The Vols have lost a couple of close games and have failed to compete in a couple of others. UT's special teams play has been spotty and the defense that has shown cracks. The running game has been throttled, the passing game lacks play-makers, a go-to receiver, a solid protection package and a proven passer.
While Tennessee needs an assortment of components to come together to be a formidable foe the tradition and stature of the program still makes it an attractive target which means the Vols don't slip up on on anyone while everyone gets up to play them.
Tennessee is likely to get the Bulldogs' best game and that might be too much to handle as the team is presently configured and performing. Also the Vols have been fortunate to avoid turnovers in the last couple of games, but the ball never bounces the same way twice. Ask Auburn which has seen its season bounce the other way after living on the edge against Mississippi State and Tennessee.
This figures to be a tight, albeit, ugly game and the Bulldogs play ugly as well as anybody.