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Of all the places for the most important game of Derek Dooley's career, we wouldn't have guessed Starkville.
Of the other thirteen teams in the SEC, only three have never been an annual rival of the Tennessee Volunteers. One is Texas A&M, who just got here and we're not even sure when we'll play. One is LSU, but thanks to a pair of meetings in Atlanta the Vols and Tigers faced off eight times in twelve years from 2000-2011, and since the first seven of those meetings were all incredibly memorable and both programs are traditionally strong, we tend to hold LSU in higher esteem than the schedule suggests.
And then there's Mississippi State.
The Vols and Bulldogs have met just 44 times despite both programs being founding members of the SEC in 1932. During those eighty years, Mississippi State has won the SEC one time (1941). In the last twenty years of conference expansion, Mississippi State has won the SEC West one time, leading to what is probably the only game between the Vols and Bulldogs that many fans of either team really remember today in the 1998 SEC Championship. You might also recall some last minute heroics by Andy Kelly in 1991 or the Todd Helton Vols getting upset in Starkville in 1994, but that's usually about it.
So in an already rare matchup, we'll get an extra dose of unique on Saturday night. Mississippi State comes in 5-0 and ranked 19th, their best start since 1999. With a win over Tennessee and another against MTSU next week, the Bulldogs would be 7-0 and almost certainly in the Top 15 entering the gauntlet of Alabama-Texas A&M-LSU at the end of October/first of November. Whether the Bulldogs are good enough to win the SEC West can't be decided until then. But to stay in the conversation until that point, a Mississippi State team with wins over Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama, and Kentucky must beat Tennessee.
It's a huge game for the Bulldogs, and we expect Starkville to be ready. But it's an even more important game for Derek Dooley and Tennessee.
As we come to October again, it's a familiar story: the Vols' next three opponents are all undefeated, 16-0 and ranked 19th, 3rd, and 1st. At least it's nothing new.
No one is banking on Dooley and the Vols beating Alabama or winning at South Carolina. But for Dooley not to really need one of those games, he has to win this one.
Mississippi State is ranked, undefeated, and playing at home. But in the eyes of Tennessee fans, Mississippi State is also still the program with one conference title, one division title, and no history with Tennessee. Like NC State before and Missouri yet to come, it's a game we expect to win because we wear the T on our helmet and they don't. Right or wrong, the Vols won't get as much bang for their buck by beating Mississippi State.
But we don't need the extra bang right now. Derek Dooley just needs this win.
By now we're all familiar with the history with Dooley. We saw enough of what we needed to see in Athens to continue down this path. But only victory will suffice in Starkville. Make no mistake: this is as must-win as anything Dooley has ever faced.
If you think it can't happen in Starkville, Ron Zook begs to differ. But if the fight Dooley's Vols showed in Athens returns to the field in Starkville, there's still a ton of meaningful football left in this season.
We all want to head to the Alabama and South Carolina games feeling like we've got a puncher's chance, because our offensive punch is still plenty strong (the Vols are second in the SEC at 506.6 yards per game). We all want to see if Dooley can win the big one. But we have to go through the meaningful one to get to the big one. Dooley has won in this spot before: Kentucky in 2010, Vanderbilt in 2011, and NC State earlier this year come to mind. Games Tennessee really had to have to keep the story and the season going in a positive direction.
Saturday night in Starkville, the meaningful one will be the biggest game Dooley has faced. Lose, and a dangerous vote of no confidence will emerge. But win, and Dooley gets his fist over a ranked team, and we head to the Third Saturday in October with weapons loaded.
If you told us when Derek Dooley took this job that his most important game would be at Mississippi State, I doubt we would've believed it. But here and now, all roads lead to Starkville. And I hope Dooley brings home a winner.