Prediction Panel: Tennessee vs. Mississippi State

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    Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

    The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the Mississippi State Bulldogs this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ next SEC match-up.

    Nathanael’s Pick

    This is Tennessee’s most winnable game since the BYU game a month ago. The Vols have a legitimate shot at winning this contest, but so does Mississippi State.

    Neither team is all that great, to be honest. Vol fans know all about why UT isn’t great, but as for Mississippi State, their issues are numerous as well. Their defense just hasn’t been good, especially when it comes to stopping the run. The Bulldogs are tied with Kentucky for the most rushing touchdowns allowed so far in 2019 at 12. Offensively, MSU has one of the best running backs in the country in Kylin Hill and a pretty solid offensive line, but inconsistent QB play has plagued that offense. Tommy Stevens has been hurt almost all season, and while freshman Garrett Shrader is a weapon on the ground, he’s not nearly as effective passing.

    With all that being said, though, Mississippi State still has plenty of reasons to pick them.

    As I said, Hill is a phenomenal running back. He leads the SEC in rushing yards, and that O-line is no joke either. Plus, State will likely be playing all their suspended players in this game, and their biggest contributors among the 10 suspended players are on defense.

    The last time all the suspended Bulldogs played was when MSU played Kentucky. In that game, Mississippi State led the Wildcats 21-3 at halftime and went on to win 28-13.

    I think Kentucky is worse than Tennessee, but that concerns me regardless.

    To me, this game is very winnable for Tennessee. And they desperately need to win this game to avoid going 1-5, then likely 1-6 after the Alabama game.

    I really want to pick Tennessee to win this game. But my gut all week has been saying Mississippi State wins this game, and the more I look at the match-ups, the more I think my gut is right.

    You have a noon kick-off in what will definitely be a muted and fairly sparse Neyland Stadium crowd, a dynamic rushing attack from MSU, a freshman QB who is making just his 2nd career start in Maurer for Tennessee, Mississippi State is coming off a bye week, and you have the return of several suspended Bulldogs. Plus, Mississippi State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop would love to show his old team that he can, in fact, coach (despite what some fans and media members said during his time at UT).

    The Vols certainly can win this game. I would like to be wrong. But I’m going with my gut and what logic is telling me.

    Pick: 24-20, Mississippi state 

    MVP: Kylin Hill, Mississippi state RB

    I imagine that if the Bulldogs win it will largely be because of Kylin Hill chewing up the turf with a lot of strong runs. The Bulldogs don’t have another running back they hand the ball off to, and Hill has only been contained once this season, and that was against the stout Auburn defense. It wouldn’t shock me to see Hill go over 150 rushing yards just by himself on Saturday.

    Ben’s Pick

    To date, Saturday’s game against Mississippi State is the biggest game of Jeremy Pruitt’s head coaching career. Get a win, and Tennessee has the chance to make it to a bowl game. Get a loss, and the Vols probably win just two or three games this season. It’s absolutely critical for UT to beat the Bulldogs.

    The Vols have the pieces to turn their season around, beginning with Mississippi State. Led by Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, the opportunity for a big day through the air will present itself. State’s passing defense ranks in the bottom half of the SEC, and with Brian Maurer making his second career start at quarterback, the true freshman has re-energized the Tennessee offense.

    Opportunity will also present itself in the running game. Mississippi State is allowing 158.0 rushing yards per game, 11th-most in the conference. Assuming Tennessee’s offensive line continues to improve week-to-week, Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, and Eric Gray have the potential for a big day.

    Questions remain surrounding the offensive line, however. K’Rojhn Calbert and Riley Locklear have been banged up of late, and Brandon Kennedy missed Wednesday’s practice with a sore knee. Kennedy is expected to play, but the Vols could insert a third true freshman into the lineup with Chris Akporoghene playing right guard. Paired with a true freshman at quarterback, the recipe for disaster presents itself going up against a Mississippi State front seven that has legitimate playmakers.

    Ultimately, I believe the offense will perform good enough to win. That is assuming Maurer’s first half performance against Georgia wasn’t a flash in the pan. What concerns me in regards to Tennessee winning is its front seven — specifically the defense line.

    Mississippi State’s O-line is considered the best unit on their team, while Tennessee’s D-line is considered the worst unit of their team. The Bulldogs have a strong running game led by Kylin Hill. The junior leads the SEC in rushing with 596 yards and is averaging an SEC-best 119.2 yards per game.

    I’m expecting for Mississippi State’s offense to have a big day rushing the football. State’s offensive line should prove to be too good for the Vols to handle. But where the Vols can win the game is if either Garrett Shrader or Tommy Stevens struggle.

    Stevens won the starting job out of fall camp but has been banged up lately. Shrader, the true freshman, has been impressive filling in and has led some to believe that he should be the full-time quarterback moving forward. Neither terrify defensive coordinators with their arms, but Shrader does instill fear with his legs. He’s rushed for 312 yards and two touchdowns on 46 carries while averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

    Saturday’s contest is likely a contest where the first team to 28-or-so points wins. It’ll be a close game throughout, but because of Mississippi State being more equipped to stop the run, I’m giving the slight edge to the Bulldogs.

    Pick: 31-27, Mississippi State 

    MVP: Kylin Hill, Mississippi State RB

    Kylin Hill is the most underrated running back in the conference and in the country. If he played at a school with a bigger brand name, he’d probably be in the Heisman conversation. Behind one of the better offensive lines in the SEC, I expect for Hill to have a big day rushing the football against a Tennessee rush defense that gives up the third-most yards in the SEC.