This is a tough one for Tennessee. There’s no denying that. I can sense the fan base knows that. I even think the players and coaches are hyper-aware of that. I’m not saying they lack confidence or are defeated already, but all the normal coach speak and platitudes that are thrown out every week seemed very genuine this week. The Rebels are loaded and the Vols know it.
And it’s not just that Ole Miss is talented, it’s the areas that they are stacked in that should concern the Vols the most. I’m talking mostly about the defense, but especially the Rebels’ defensive front. I really like their combination of size and speed upfront and I just don’t see how Tennessee will block it with any consistency. It’s a balanced group that has run stuffers and pass-rush specialists mixed in there. I suggested in my blueprint yesterday that the Vols run right at defensive end CJ Johnson, because they’re not going to be able to block him in pass protection, so might as well take advantage of his lack of size and try to wear him down a bit. And what will the Vols do with Robert Nkemdiche? I’ve been asking that since I’ve seen this game on the schedule. That’s a horrible mismatch. Tennessee’s receivers have the talent to make plays – even against a talented secondary like what Ole Miss has. I’m just not sure that Justin Worley will have time to get them the ball. I expect Ole Miss to play a lot of tight man coverage and to take away as many of the short routes as possible to force Worley to hold it. We know what will happen at that point.
On the brighter side from Tennessee’s perspective, I see UT’s defense playing well. How long can it hold up is the biggest question I have. I expect the Vols to be defending a short field several times and possibly without a whole lot of rest. Butch Jones talks a ton about playing complimentary football and the offensive side just hasn’t held up its end of the bargain enough to help the other units. I don’t see Tennessee getting gashed on defense, I’m just not sure any defense can hold up under what it could be asked to do on Saturday, especially against an offense with that many options.
I have a hard time seeing the Vols scoring more than twice, and they might need some help from the defense or special teams to even get that many. UT’s defense will battle courageously, but it won’t be enough. Ole Miss will take something like a 17-7 edge into halftime and will grind it out the rest of the way. Tennessee will make a few big plays, offering glimmers of hope, but Ole Miss is the better football team and playing at home, so I see the Rebels taking care of business fairly comfortably in this one. Pick: Ole Miss 27-10
MVP: The Ole Miss defensive line
Predictable, but most likely true. These guys are good against anybody, so it’ll be a field day against Tennessee’s offensive line. They haven’t put up massive sack totals, but it’s a disruptive bunch. The fact that the Ole Miss secondary leads the SEC in interceptions is a reflection on the defensive backs, obviously, but also on the guys upfront who rush the passer. And I see them controlling the run game as well, possibly keeping the Vols from the 100-yard mark on the ground. I’m not sure who it’ll be – maybe Nkemdiche, Johnson, Fadol Brown, Marquis Haynes or somebody else – but somebody on this unit will get to Worley, knock the ball loose and make a big play for the Rebels when they need it.
If you look at this game across the board, it’s just very tough to find a matchup you like if you’re Tennessee. Ole Miss’ defense is among the best in the country and would be ranked even higher if not for giving up late yards and points in garbage time against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. Up front, they are absolutely stacked along the defensive line with playmakers Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson leading the charge. Tennessee will have to find creative ways to slow these guys down in this one to allow Justin Worley time to find his receivers downfield. Tennessee’s struggles protecting the passer this season are well-documented, but this may prove to be their biggest challenge of the season. Ole Miss is also extremely solid in the secondary and at linebacker, so Vol receivers will have to work incredibly hard to get open and fight for the football when/if Worley sends it their way.
On defense, I think Tennessee will be able to give Ole Miss some trouble tonight. Ole Miss doesn’t have an extremely strong rushing attack that just lines up and hits you in the mouth over and over again like Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida were able to do the the Vols in the second half of those games. They do, however, have an excellent quarterback who is playing the best football of his career in Bo Wallace. Good Bo/Bad Bo has been replaced with Great Bo in 2014, so the Vol secondary must be ready for all Wallace will try to throw at them – pun intended – tonight. I scouted Ole Miss earlier this week to get a feel for their offense and it’s safe to say that they like to spread teams out, take advantage of their favorable matchups with quick throws, and then set up their deeper shots downfield for when they need them. Wallace will look for Laquon Treadwell early and often in this one with quick screens, slants and back-shoulder fades to set up their longer throws later in the game. Treadwell is among the nation’s best, so even if coverage is solid, if Bo Wallace has too much time in the pocket he will be able to find Treadwell for big plays.
If Tennessee wants to win this one, they will have to play ugly and hope Ole Miss joins them. They’ll need to play a game similar to the one the 2003 team played in a 10-6 win over 6th-ranked Miami on the road. In that game Tennessee only put up 170 yards of total offense, but they scored the game’s only touchdown and they forced four Hurricane turnovers to escape with a four point win. The 2014 Vols could benefit from a similar game plan. They’ll need to force a bunch of turnovers, pressure the quarterback, use special teams to flip field position and hope the offense can do enough to give them a lead late in the game.
Unfortunately, I just don’t think Tennessee can play mistake-free football on offense in this one. Ole Miss is a very solid defense, but also very opportunistic, and Tennessee has had a bad case of the turnovers in big games this year. I think the Vols play well for a half, but ultimately the Rebels pull away late.
Pick: Ole Miss 24-13
MVP: Mississippi WR Laquon Treadwell
Bo Wallace is a great player, but Treadwell is their most talented weapon on offense and I think he saves the day in this one. I could see Tennessee shutting down the Ole Miss passing game for most of the night until crunch time when they just start force-feeding it to #1. For some reason I just have a feeling that Ole Miss gets a big play from Treadwell in the second half to regain momentum and pull away from a gritty Tennessee team in this one. I don’t expect his stat line to be outrageous – maybe something like six catches for 80-90 yards and a touchdown – but I do think his touchdown will be a critical one.
I ranked this as the fifth-toughest game on Tennessee’s schedule prior to the season, but now think it’s the most difficult matchup of the season for the Vols. I thought Ole Miss would be good this season, but not this good. Their defense leads the SEC in yards per play (4.3) and points allowed (11.8). But they’re even more impressive than the numbers show. Their starters have allowed just three offensive touchdowns this season – and they’ve scored four touchdowns. That’s just an insane stat halfway through the season and it’s even more unbelievable when you consider that they’ve faced two of the top three offenses in the SEC so far in Alabama and Texas A&M. Last week, they were the first defense to shut out a Kevin Sumlin coached team at halftime. The list goes on and on.
While the Rebel defense has been historically good, Tennessee’s offensive line has been historically bad. Ole Miss ranks 11th in the conference in sacks but that’s not because they don’t put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Teams do everything they can schematically to limit their pass rush so their sack numbers are down. Make no mistake: they have one of the most disruptive defensive lines in the country. Tennessee’s offense is in for a massive test. They’ll have to utilize the quick passing game and hope players like Von Pearson and Pig Howard break some tackles and make some big plays.
For the Vols to win this one their receivers and running backs will have to play their best game of the season. Worley has to take care of the ball and keep a few drives alive with his legs. Defensively, the Vols should slow down the Rebels enough to make this a game. It’ll be up to the Vol offense to string together long enough drives to keep the defense fresh and ultimately make this a 4 quarter game. If Tennessee can decisively win the turnover battle, they’ll gave a real shot at the upset. If not, things will get ugly.
Tennessee hasn’t won a road game against a top-5 team since 2005 – which is also the last time the Vols bested an SEC team on the road that finished the year with a winning conference record. I don’t see those streaks ending against Ole Miss with their decisive edge on the line of scrimmage. Tennessee’s defense will keep it close for a while, but the offense just won’t be able to make enough plays.
Pick: Ole Miss 27-10
MVP: Mississippi Quarterback Bo Wallace
This pick is sure to be correct – hear me out. If Wallace plays like he has the past two weeks, the Rebels are all but assured a comfortable win. In addition to being one of the top-rated passers in the nation, Wallace is also one of the Rebels’ top running threats. He’s playing against his home state team, a team he wanted to play for, and will definitely be motivated to put up some big numbers. If the Rebels win, I’m betting Bo has a big day.
Now…if “Bad Bo” shows up the Vols have a chance. The Vol secondary definitely has the ability to make life hard for Wallace and, if he struggles, he’ll be Tennessee’s MVP for the game. Bad Bo is the only way the Vols win. Good Bo is the only way the Rebels cover. Either way, he’ll be someone’s MVP.