The Tennessee Volunteers are heading into a vital bye week after a tough loss at Georgia. The week off precedes a game at Mississippi State that is perhaps the most important in terms of the future of the program since 2007's thrilling overtime victory against Kentucky that sent the Vols to the SEC Championship.
In other words, this bye is crucial!
The 20th-ranked Bulldogs are much improved due to the arrival of Dan Mullen, going 25-17 since 2009, including a great 4-0 start this year. There is, however, no question that Tennessee has faced far greater adversity than Mississippi State already this season.
If the Volunteers can leverage that experience into stronger defense, improved turnover efficiency and gritty mental toughness, they can win their first game as an underdog (I predict) under Derek Dooley. A loss potentially paves the way for another winless October.
So what does the team have to do make sure that doesn't happen? Here are five things...
The Volunteers are tied with Alabama and Mississippi State with nine interceptions this year. However, they are second to last with just six sacks.
This week, if Tennessee can work on getting off the ball, fighting through blocks and finishing off sacks, it could put them over the edge in the turnover battle—something that kept them in the game at Georgia.
State quarterback Tyler Russell hasn't been stellar this year, completing only 55 percent of his passes. But he has kept interceptions to a minimum, throwing only one. The Vols will need to apply pressure to him in order to trigger turnovers.
And isn't it about time to see Curt Maggitt and Jacques Smith have another big game? They were made for the 3-4 defense but have yet to leave their marks. A week for Maggitt's turf toe to heal should help, while Smith ought to just watch videos of the great Lawrence Taylor for inspiration.
I have a suspicion that if Tennessee is going to win the game on October 13th in Starkville, it will come down to a field goal or less. If that's true, the game will swing with the foot of Michael Palardy or Derrick Brodus.
Did you just shiver in fear? Yeah, me too.
Brodus has done a great job settling things down with consistency in extra points and field goals (his first-ever miss was in Athens), but it's Palardy's job in the long-run. He was the second-ranked kicker in the country coming out of high school, and he's the one with the scholarship.
With Brodus, a miss can be due to a mental or physical problem. With Palardy, it's all mental. It's hard to believe, but he's 13-of-15 on field goals within 40 yards in his career, so there's no lack of power or accuracy when he's locked in.
This week, Palardy needs to build his confidence and get an injection of ice into his veins.
With the running game clicking better this year than at anytime last year, it's time to add a few razzle-dazzle plays in the Vols' playbook.
No, I'm not talking about the highly effective, yet highly unoriginal wildcat formation with A.J. Johnson taking the snap.
I'm talking about pulling Cordarrelle Patterson on an end-around, having him stop and then lob a 20-yard pass to a wide-open Mychal Rivera for a huge gain.
I'm looking for a few misdirection plays with Rajion Neal and Quenshaun Watson in the backfield at the same time. Neal has power, while Watson has speed.
I want an unconventional five-wide set where Tyler Bray is "forced" to do what he loves doing—sling it through a tiny opening.
There's no doubt that Jim Chaney can think up better plays than me. I don't want some ridiculous Madden play-calling, but these wrinkles can add a whole new dimension to the game while opening up more conventional plays, too.
Trick plays in the game plan aren't meant to do anything but get the offense flowing and Mississippi State's average defense on its heels. There's time to mix a few in during the bye week.
The Tennessee Volunteers' big win this year was the NC State game in Atlanta. Besides the incredible turnover parade that the defense held, Marlin Lane's outstanding performance remains the only difference between that game and the others this season.
Lane carried just nine times but tallied 75 yards, including a 42-yard scamper that was merely feet from going all the way to the house.
His first carry came with 3:42 left in the second quarter, when both teams were eyeing the halftime break to recoup. It was a perfect time to bring in a fresh set of talented legs. Lane carried the ball three times in that closing drive for 17 yards, providing the boost the Vols needed all the way to the goal line.
Tennessee has tried a similar approach with Lane in recent games, but he hasn't had the same electricity. This week, it's important that Jay Graham and Lane get on the same page to maximize his limitless potential.
We've all heard that the Volunteer defense has had issues with stopping the big plays, and while that's true, it's more specific than that. The big runs are what's killing them.
Tennessee has given up 187 yards per game on the ground this season, all but neutralizing the rebirth of their own rushing attack. Against their two SEC foes, it has been worse, surrendering 309 yards per game.
Florida had runs of 45 and 80 yards, more than a third of their game total. Georgia had runs of 75, 72 and 51 yards, more than 70 percent of their total.
The Vols need to work on cutting those huge runs off much earlier. It may feel like a loss to accept a strong run of 20 yards, but clearly, it makes a huge difference at the end of the game for an otherwise satisfactory rush defense.
Mississippi State's running game has mirrored Tennessee's in terms of yards per game. The Bulldogs are seventh in the SEC, while the Vols are eighth.