It's going to be a late Saturday night on October 13th! The Tennessee Volunteers will travel to Starkville to take on the undefeated Mississippi State Bulldogs for an ESPN2 televised game at 9 p.m. ET.
The last time the two teams met was 2008 in Knoxville. The Vols prevailed with a convincing 34-3 victory en route to an otherwise embarrassing 5-7 season. The year before, the pair played in Starkville, with Tennessee winning 33-21.
Indeed, the Big Orange has dominated the series, which started in 1921, with 27 wins to 11 losses and a tie. But the No. 19 Bulldogs are looking for their first win over Tennessee since 1994 and are fielding one of the best teams in recent school history.
All signs point to a thrilling game that I believe just might head into overtime and will make for a great end to a college football Saturday.
How Mississippi State Will Win
Quarterback Tyler Russell has won games for the Bulldogs by limiting his mistakes. He has the fewest interceptions (one) of any SEC quarterback with at least 120 pass attempts.
Russell has only been sacked three times this season, tied with Tennessee's Tyler Bray for the lowest in the conference.
The Bulldogs' balanced offensive attack (185 runs and 151 passes) needs to find a few holes in a Tennessee defense that is prone to giving up big plays. They've allowed five runs of over 45 yards in two SEC games.
Mississippi State's defense is led by the highly touted Jonathan Banks, who's rated at the top cornerback in the country by many analysts. The Bulldog secondary will need their sack-starved defensive line to hurry the Volunteer passing game to force key turnovers and limit Tennessee's potent offense.
The last time Tennessee faced an NFL prospect at cornerback, NC State's David Amerson was torched numerous times by several different Vol receivers. Mississippi State needs to reverse that trend.
The Bulldogs will win the game if they're able to continue keeping Russell out of trouble, both from interceptions and sacks. They need to put pressure on Bray to force him to rush throws, which he has a history of doing. A raucous cowbell-wielding crowd can only help Mississippi State to a 6-0 start.
How Tennessee Will Win
The Volunteers have faced two top-10 teams thus far, so it's hard to get a good gauge on how good the team is this year. Mississippi State provides Tennessee a great opportunity to test itself against a talented but comparable team on the road.
Running back Rajion Neal has been a pleasant surprise, ranking among the top rushers in the SEC after six weeks. To prevent giving the ball to the mistake-free Bulldog offense, his continued production is vital.
Tyler Bray is capable of an NC State-like performance each and every week. However, there were times against Georgia that he was simply off on his throws, which could be chalked up to nerves. That has to be behind him now. The Volunteers need a big game from their leader.
On defense, Tennessee's sack woes mirror Mississippi State's. The Vols are last in the SEC with six sacks, while the Bulldogs are second to last with eight. It's time for Jacques Smith to have a big game. The junior is built to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense but has yet to make a real impact.
The Volunteers will win if they're able to force Tyler Russell into a couple uncharacteristic turnovers and get the ball into the hands of their high-scoring offense. At the same time, they need to protect the ball themselves. Six of the Vols' 11 turnovers this year have come in their two losses.
Close games, like the Vols-Bulldogs matchup is bound to be, always come down to turnovers. I think both teams will do a good job of protecting the ball, which means the outcome of the game will depend on who can stay focused all the way to the end.
The defenses are nearly equal, but Tennessee is the overwhelming favorite on offense. I give Dan Mullen's coaching staff a slight nod over Derek Dooley's, and the kicking game check mark goes to Mississippi State as well.
But it's Tennessee's Rajion Neal that is the key to the game. If he tallies over 100 yards for a third straight game, the Volunteers are going to be tough to beat. It will also take a lot of pressure off Tyler Bray and the passing game.
I see Tennessee's better talent prevailing at the very end, possibly in overtime, 27-24.
Author's note: After learning that Derek Dooley will be coaching from the press box for the game, I have officially decided that this game will end in a tie. Prepare yourselves for a classic game.
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