Tennessee’s season has officially gone off the rails.
The Volunteers lost to Kentucky last Saturday for just the second time since 1985 and Butch Jones will lead the team onto Shields-Watkins Field once again for Homecoming. Amid the #EmptyNeyland campaign and a toxic environment surrounding the team, Tennessee returns home to play the Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
Tennessee’s homecoming games are usually scheduled against a lower-tier opponent, which was the thought process when this game was scheduled. There’s just one problem: Southern Miss is pretty good. Tennessee opened as a 7.5-point favorite, but is listed at -5.5 right now.
Southern Miss is a team which has had an up-and-down year, but it has the talent to compete with just about anybody.
The Golden Eagles lost to Kentucky by seven points on the road in their season opener. USM also mounted a wild comeback to beat Louisiana Tech, scoring 11 points in the final 1:23 of regulation before winning in overtime.
Southern Miss couples an offense capable of exploding for big plays with a veteran defense. The Golden Eagles have been in several close games, but they have found ways to win them, something which has plagued Tennessee aside from its win over Georgia Tech.
Southern Miss is no pushover. It is going to come into Neyland Stadium expecting to win.
Southern Miss’s game against UAB last week is not indicative of how good of a team the Golden Eagles are. UAB beat Southern Miss 30-12 behind a strong second half performance.
Southern Miss took a 12-7 lead into halftime, but was outscored 23-0 in the second half. The Golden Eagles tried to mount a comeback like the one they pulled off against Louisiana Tech, but UAB intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown with less than a minute remaining to ice the game.
After the first quarter, the Southern Miss offense just wasn’t able to get on track. USM’s defense also gave up more than 200 yards to UAB running back Spencer Brown, so Tennessee will look to John Kelly and Ty Chandler to carry the Vols’ offense.
RB Ito Smith - Much like Benny Snell last week, this is a running back Tennessee is going to struggle to contain. Ito Smith has 817 rushing yards on 144 attempts this season, an average of 5.7 yards per carry. Smith has also rushed for seven touchdowns.
WR Korey Robertson - When Southern Miss drops back to pass, look for the ball to go to Korey Robertson. Robertson has turned his team-high 43 receptions into 580 yards and seven touchdowns.
Tennessee is a slight favorite in this game according to Vegas, but some numbers give a different prediction.
SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has his advanced statistical profile for every team in college football and is generally very accurate with his analytics. Connelly’s model gives Southern Miss a 72% chance to win the game, predicting a score of 29-19. Southern Miss is ranked 27th in Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, while Tennessee is 103rd.
I don’t think I’m quite that low on Tennessee’s chances to beat a Conference USA team, but as I mentioned, you have to look beyond the name on the front of the jerseys to really get a feel for the quality of this opponent.
As has been the case in the past several weeks, this game will be decided by how badly Tennessee wants to rebound. If the team comes out fired up and wanting to preserve its chances of going to a bowl game, the Vols could do a number on Southern Miss. But if UT plays uninspired like it did against Kentucky, Saturday could be another embarrassing stain on the 2017 season.