Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (60,580) • Oxford, Miss.
Series Record: Tennessee leads 44-19-1
Setting the table
Most people realized, even before the season, that this would be a tough challenge for the Vols. Few, however, had any idea that Tennessee would be facing the No. 3 team in the nation and might have its biggest task of the entire season in front of it on Saturday. The Rebels are loaded and are playing their best football in decades. They haven’t been ranked this high since the 1964 season. Their complete squad is led by quarterback Bo Wallace, a Tennessee native, but it’s their defense that causes the toughest matchup for the Vols. UT, meanwhile, got back in the win column last week against Chattanooga. But that didn’t take away the sting of three straight losses prior to that, particularly the heartbreaking one to Florida on Oct. 4. Saturday will be another huge challenge for this young team against a program that has taken huge steps in recent years. The Vols hope to be where Ole Miss is soon, but reality says they’re just not there yet.
Who has the edge?
When Tennessee throws…
The Rebels are fourth in the conference in pass defense, giving up 193.8 yards per game. Pretty much the only success the Vols have had on offense has come through the air over the past couple weeks – but it’s not as if Justin Worley has been just lighting teams up. There have been a few issues in the passing game that have limited UT’s success. The blocking – or lack there of – is the primary concern for Tennessee. UTC dropped Worley for five sacks and the Rebels have significantly more size, talent and athleticism up front than did the Mocs. That’s a massive concern for the Vols. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian will have to shrink the playbook, lean on shorter routes and commit backs and tight ends to help block. That’s not ideal for maximizing offensive potential, but they have to give Worley at least a shot to get the ball out of hand. There also hasn’t been a ton of separation from UT’s receivers, especially against the more athletic secondaries. Ole Miss certainly has just that. Cornerback Senquez Golson leads the SEC with five interceptions. Safety Cody Prewitt is a likely early-round NFL draft pick. And those are just a couple of the talented players the Rebels have at defensive back. The Vols will get a boost from a healthier Von Pearson, but look for the talented and ball-hawking Ole Miss secondary to take advantage of Worley as he regularly throws under duress. Edge: Ole Miss
When Tennessee runs…
The Vols could make a few plays through the air. It’s tough to see them making much progress on the ground, however, against an Ole Miss run defense that’s third in the SEC (113.33 ypg). The same offensive line issues that slow UT down in pass protection are magnified in the run game. The Vols haven’t had consistent push on the ground all season, and it seems unlikely that this will be the week that it starts. In addition, Tennessee is extremely banged up at running back. Marlin Lane (ankle) has been gimpy in practice all week and Butch Jones has called him a game-time decision. He’s struggled when fully healthy, so it’s hard to see him having much impact regardless. Devrin Young (ribs) is out of this game. So that leaves true freshman Jalen Hurd, who is less than 100 percent with a shoulder injury himself, as the feature back and quite possibly one of the only backs. He’s had some ‘wow’ moments this year and has loads of potential. The Vols will be asking a lot of him, however, to carry almost all of the load against such a talented defense. True freshman Derrell Scott could get a few touches, though don’t look for the Vols to lean on him too much if it’s a tight game. Edge: Ole Miss
When Ole Miss passes…
As much as has been made about quarterback Bo Wallace’s propensity to be a touch erratic, the Tennessee native is playing some of the best football of his life right now. He put up impressive numbers in back-to-back wins over Alabama and Texas A&M and, perhaps most importantly, he’s hung onto the ball – throwing zero interceptions against those two talented teams with four touchdowns passes in that span. That doesn’t mean he can’t serve them up, however, and UT will be looking to bait him. He threw six INTs in the first four games against inferior opponents. The Ole Miss targets against UT’s secondary is a strength-vs-strength type of matchup. The Vols have had great coverage, especially over the past three games. But they’ll be tested in Oxford. Sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell is one of the most physically gifted players in the nation. He has a lot of help too. Veteran Vince Sanders, Cody Core, Evan Engram and Quincy Abeboyejo are among the other talented options Wallace has in the passing game. In total, the Rebels are second in the league in passing, averaging just under 300 yards per contest. The Vols have a lot of talent in the secondary and, in fact, are second in the league in pass defense. Those numbers might be slightly inflated due to the lack of throwing ability of the past few QBs they’ve faced. Still, this will be a fun matchup and a great test for UT. Edge: Slightly to Ole Miss
When Ole Miss runs…
If there’s one thing Ole Miss doesn’t do particularly well, it’s running the football. The Rebels are near the bottom of the conference with an average of 146.5 yards per game on the ground. But that’s not to say that they’re inept. They use a running-back-by-committee approach and they have different styles of runners that can keep the defense off balance. They do a good job in the short passing game to the backs as well and Wallace is also a threat to pull it down and run at any point. And watch out for 300-pound wildcat quarterback Jeremy Liggins, who is used in short-yardage situations. It’s not as simple as zeroing in on one player and stopping him to halt the entire rushing attack. Statistically, Tennessee has been just average in stopping the run. The Vols are in the middle of the pack in the SEC, giving up 156 yards per game to opponents. But the Vols have faced some really good running teams and Ole Miss doesn’t fall in the same category as a team like Georgia. Seeing a mobile quarterback won’t be anything new for the Vols either. Five of their six opponents have featured one who runs regularly. I don’t see a huge advantage for either side here. It’s hard to envision Ole Miss running wild, though the Rebels should make some progress on the ground. Edge: Even
Nothing really sticks out for either team as a massive advantage here. Ole Miss punter Will Gleeson is very good, averaging 44.0 yards per punt with a long of 70 and 12 downed inside the 20. UT’s Matt Darr has been punting well recently, though his average is a few yards less. Tennessee may have the slight edge in field-goal situations. The Rebels are 4-of-7 for the year and have made only one longer than 31 yards. Aaron Medley is now 9-of-12 for the year and is kicking with more confidence. Evan Berry should handle kickoff returns for UT after Young’s injury. He made a nice debut last week, taking his first career attempt back over 60 yards. Now we’ll find out how he does against an SEC opponent. Jaylen Walton is a talented kickoff returner, averaging over 33 yards per return, though neither team has a ton of explosive plays in the return game this season. Edge: Even
What Ole Miss is thinking
There are no off weeks in the SEC, but, wow, we love our matchup against Tennessee’s offensive line. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw what UTC did to it on film. We can do everything the Mocs did plus much, much more. That’s how we’ll control the game. Worley won’t have time to make more than one or two reads, we’ll get Hurd stopped before he gets started and we can hold UT’s offense to 14 points or less if we play our game. That means on offense, we just have to play smart. Wallace can’t force it down the field. We’ll take what we can get on the ground, hit our talented athletes on shorter passes and if the opportunity comes, we’ll hit them deep, but we’re not getting greedy. We’ll settle for field goals at times if we need to. If we do all that, we should win this one comfortably, maybe in the 31-10 range or so.
What Tennessee is thinking
There’s no doubt Ole Miss looked formidable the last two weeks. But we’ve seen too many crazy things happen in college football to say that we have no shot in this game. The Rebels have shown flaws this year. The Memphis film wasn’t that impressive. Neither was their win over Boise State. Especially if those Rebels show up on Saturday, we’ll make this one interesting. Our offense isn’t where it needs to be right now, but it can put together a couple drives to get some points on the board. That’s why we saved guys like Hurd and Pearson as much as possible for this week. Then our defense can make a statement. They can score one of their own or give us a short field for another score. We’ll pick Wallace off at least twice, keep the run game under wraps and take this game into the fourth quarter, where we can pull out something like a 17-14 win.
What RTI is thinking
This one certainly doesn’t match up well for Tennessee. The biggest question we have is if Tennessee can move the ball on that Ole Miss defense, which really has very few, if any, flaws. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see UT’s defense step up as well. And if the Vols are going to make this one competitive, that’s what they’ll need in a big way. But the Rebels have too many weapons on offense to think that UT can just shut that down. The most likely scenario is that Rebels find the end zone at least a few times and the Vols just can’t match that unless Ole Miss gives them a ton of help. We wouldn’t mess with the spread, but it would take a lot of things going right for the Vols to come away with this upset victory.