It’s been a tough start for Tennessee. Not many people out there saw a 1-4 start coming for the Volunteers, but that’s exactly where they sit after five games. Jeremy Pruitt needs a spark, and he may have found one last week in freshman quarterback Brian Maurer. With a bit of a lighter opponent in Mississippi State coming into town this week ahead of a trip to No. 1 Alabama, Tennessee really needs to capitalize on Saturday.
Here’s a quick look at some key players, stats and a matchup to watch during the game.
RB Kylin Hill
Mississippi State is a run first team and it all starts with Hill. The 5-11, 215 pound running back already has 596 yards rushing on the year, along with five touchdowns. Hill is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has gotten 24+ carries on three separate occasions this season. Tennessee isn’t going to shut him down, but limiting him will be a major key to a win.
QB Garrett Shrader
If it’s not Hill, it’s quarterback Garrett Shrader running the football for Mississippi State. A starter at quarterback has yet to be determined for the Bulldogs, but it’s tough to argue for what Shrader adds to the rushing attack. He’s over 300 yards for the season and has split time with Stevens under center. He’s up to an impressive 6.8 yards per carry on the year, so containing him will be a must for Tennessee.
QB Tommy Stevens
If it’s not Shrader, it’ll be Stevens at quarterback for Mississippi State. The Penn State transfer is more of a passer than Shrader, but hasn’t been effective in his chances so far. Stevens has thrown for 448 yards and five touchdowns, but was pulled for Shrader against Kansas State.
WR Osirus Mitchell
Mitchell is a matchup problem for just about anyone in the country. The 6-5 junior hasn’t put up big numbers in a run heavy offense, but he has impacted the game in the redzone. Mitchell has four touchdowns on the year, so look out for him around the endzone on Saturday afternoon.
- Mississippi State ranks just 72nd against the run. Tennessee’s struggling rushing attack will welcome that match-up after being shut down against Georgia last week.
- Tennessee’s rush defense is statistically worse, facing a much better rushing attack. The Volunteers check in at 85th overall in terms of rushing yards surrendered. Tennessee will need a better effort from its front seven to hang in this one.
- The Tennessee offense has generated just 95 first downs this season, good for 105th in the country. Mississippi State has 114, which ranks 62nd. Putting a few drives together will be important for Tennessee, which will need to keep a defense off the field that’s short on depth — particularly at linebacker.
Key Matchup: Mississippi State’s offensive line vs. Tennessee’s front seven
This one is going to be determined in the trenches, particularly when Mississippi State has the ball. Tennessee has to be able to stop the run a little on Saturday as Schrader and Hill will be coming downhill all afternoon. Whether or not the Vols can get off the field on third down will go a long way in determining this one. Daniel Bituli and Henry To’o To’o just might be the most important players for Tennessee this weekend.