I'll turn 31 tomorrow. When you have an October birthday you assume you'll get a shiny new football game at least a couple times per decade. On my ninth birthday, I got one of the most enjoyable beatdowns in Neyland Stadium history. And I remember thinking on that night how great it was going to be to enjoy the football/birthday combo for the rest of my life. But when you're a Tennessee fan with a birthday that can only fall on The Second Saturday in October, you tend to get a shiny new bye week instead.
The only other time Tennessee has played on October 13 since 1990 was the last time we were in Starkville. Five years ago Tennessee trailed for less than seven minutes in a 33-21 win over what became Sylvester Croom's best Mississippi State squad (this was before my time at RTT, but Joel was clearly tapped in to something in the postgame). Our last trip to Starkville fits in perfectly with the entire Tennessee-Mississippi State series: we almost never play, and when we do it's almost never memorable.
But tomorrow night will be very different.
This is without question the biggest Tennessee-Mississippi State contest since the 1998 SEC Championship Game. There are many over at For Whom The Cowbell Tolls who say it's the biggest game in Starkville since 1999. It's a big moment for an undefeated Mississippi State team looking for continued validation; there are those on both sides who think Tennessee is the more talented team, but there are few who think Tennessee is the more confident team right now. And even if the Vols do have an edge in talent, it is not so great as to single-handedly overcome a good Mississippi State team that believes they're a great Mississippi State team, a team playing with undefeated confidence and home field advantage. No matter what assumptions we may have as fans about Mississippi State, the Vols will need way more than just the T on their helmets to win the night.
The game should be close, should be educational, and you cannot understate its importance to both teams. Plain and simple, Mississippi State and Derek Dooley both have to win to stay in the hunt.
Here's what's most important in this most important game:
1. Can Tennessee's defense make any improvement in limiting the number of big plays allowed?
Even with the benefit of not having played last week, Tennessee is still 88th nationally in 20+ yard plays allowed this season with 28, and it only gets worse from there. The Vols are 106th in 30+ yard plays allowed, 95th in 40+ yard plays allowed, 114th in 50+ yard plays allowed, and remain tied for last with five plays of 60/70+ yards allowed. It's always been true that we could give up a touchdown on any play, but it's never been more serious.
There's a small silver lining here: though this is the first time in the history of Mississippi State football that the Bulldogs have scored 25+ points in their first five games (hat tip to Braden Bishop for dropping that stat on our podcast this week), the MSU offense still isn't that explosive in terms of one play. The Bulldog offense doesn't rank in the Top 60 in any of those same yardage categories, and MSU has just two plays of more than 50+ yards in five games this season.
But you'll say, "I'm not sure it matters how good the other team is when they're playing against our defense," and I'll say, "You're probably right." Georgia State ripped off three plays of 20+ yards on their opening drive against us. To me, this is less about who Mississippi State has (note, however, LaDarius Perkins is second in the league in rushing) and more about us making adjustments.
There is going to come a time when we have to stop assuming the Vol defense is going to get better this season. Coming out of a bye week with new faces getting in the mix, I don't think we're there yet. This defense was never going to be great in the first year of a 3-4, but I still refuse to believe we have to be this bad.
And so, this week is the greatest opportunity for change in the right direction. And it's never been more important for Tennessee's defense to grow in the fundamentals, make tackles, and do everything they can to move away from being such a liability and get back to helping this football team win games. Because we have to win this one.
2. Can Rajion Neal keep up the pace?
After getting 87 tough yards against the Gators - 27 more yards than any one player has picked up against Florida all year - Rajion Neal gained 151 against Akron and 104 at Georgia in our last two outings. Those 255 yards are the best two game effort from a Vol tailback since Tauren Poole went for 272 against UT-Martin and Oregon in September 2010. Neal and the offensive line are turning in the best rushing performance we've seen in a while.
Tennessee's offense still goes through Tyler Bray, and the passing game is still the strength of this team. But the Vols still run it a ton - Neal is tied for the SEC lead in carries per game - because Tennessee plays at such a fast tempo. UT averages 79.2 plays per game; in Dooley's first two years we averaged 63 and 66. The Vols lead the SEC in plays per game by a comfortable margin; Texas A&M is second at 74.8. This is what happens when you play fast and your defense gives up so many huge plays.
So we'll need to continue to run the football all year, and if Rajion can run it this well we're going to be in good shape here. Joel's numbers say our best chance of beating Mississippi State actually comes from running the football. Like the defense, the ground game can't go backwards - we need continued progress, and if Neal can continue to demand respect, our offense is going to continue to earn it on the scoreboard. I think the run game is even more important than the matchup everyone is going to point to:
3. Tennessee Passing Game vs Mississippi State Secondary
Let's be honest: all of us are overconfident about facing a great secondary because we heard it for months from NC State and then torched them repeatedly. Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay have at least done it this season instead of last. But here again, Mississippi State's schedule comes into question: Jackson State, South Alabama, and Kentucky aren't setting the world on fire in any form or fashion, and that 28-10 win over Auburn looks a lot different than it did on September 8.
The giant red flag on their schedule is Troy, and Tennessee hopes it's an orange flag. The Trojans unleashed 574 yards of offense on Mississippi State with incredible balance (349 pass/223 rush) in 87 plays, pushing tempo. The Bulldogs prevailed 30-24 thanks to a clutch fourth quarter touchdown drive, but were clearly vulnerable even and especially against the pass.
The Vols have the 10th best pass offense in college football (Troy is 12th). What's more, while we know much of the hype is going to surround Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, and rightfully so, Bray has completed at least two passes to thirteen different receivers in just five games. So maybe, as was the case against NC State, the Vols can beat MSU's secondary outright with Hunter, Patterson, and Zach Rogers. But Tennessee should also be able to use plenty of Mychal Rivera and the running backs in this thing and really hope to cross MSU up. The Vols put up huge offensive numbers against NC State and Georgia and put a more-than-respectable 340 yards on the Gators. That's better than anyone else, including Texas A&M playing at home, has done against Florida this season (take that, Clawfense), and is 140 yards better than what LSU did last week.
So, you know, we're pretty good at this offense thing. If Rajion does his thing and makes them respect the run, I see no reason we can't continue to be pretty good at this passing thing even if MSU's defensive backs can take away the first couple of options.
4. Who wins special teams?
Again, you don't have to go much further than the fact that the Vols have missed an extra point in four of five games this season. Both teams use their most talented players in the return game with Johnthan Banks for MSU and Cordarrelle Patterson for Tennessee. Both are clearly capable of breaking off the big one but neither has really done so this season yet.
Matt Darr ate one last week against Georgia, and that can't happen in a game like this. We don't really punt enough for this to be an issue, but you know who leads the team in yards per punt? Tyler Bray, with 41 on the quick kick agaisnt Florida.
Also of note: Mississippi State's punter is named Baker Swendeburg.
For Tennessee fans, how much do you not want this thing to come down to a game winning field goal attempt for Michael Palardy or Derrick Brodus? Every kick is an adventure with us. Dooley has said it himself: one of these weeks, we've got to do enough to not just survive on special teams, but be the team that makes the breaks. Let's hope it's tomorrow night.
5. Tyler Bray with the game on the line
I'm not worried about the completion percentage in the fourth quarter; if his guys catch balls he puts in their hands that number is much higher. And given what we've seen from our defense, though they were strong in the fourth quarter at Georgia, I'd still rather have Tyler out there with us down 4 than our defense out there with us up 4 on the final drive.
Everything gets swallowed up by the present moment, so what Bray has done late against Florida and Georgia is all anyone seems to remember. But don't forget this kid led what should've been the game winning drive in the Music City Bowl as a freshman and the game tying drive against Vanderbilt last season. He's come through in these spots before, and he seemed to recognize verbally the problem at Georgia: trying to do too much, trying to win the game by himself when on both the interception and the fumble he could've simply thrown the ball away and lived to play another down.
We need Bray to be the man. It's just sometimes being the man means making the smart play over the hero play. This team will win and lose together, and at Georgia we took a hard loss together. I'd love nothing more than to see Bray play really well and, if necessary, lead fourth quarter drives that make the difference in a Tennessee victory in Starkville. I think we will continue to see him mature and improve, and part of that means winning one of these tight ones in the fourth quarter against somebody better than Vanderbilt. He may get his chance tomorrow night.
More than anything, you know what I want for my birthday? I want to sit down at my laptop in the early hours of Sunday morning and talk about hope and not depression. I want to talk about Alabama and not Derek Dooley. I want to talk about winning and not losing. For the first time under Dooley's watch, I come into one of these games knowing we could come out on the other side with change at the top as the most probable outcome. And for a million reasons we've described a million times, I don't want that to be the case.
I want Derek Dooley to be the guy, and I want to quit having to argue for it and start getting excited throwing our best punch at Nick Saban's face. I want things to stop being about Derek Dooley and start being about Tennessee.
Only two options in Starkville, and only one way to get what we want.