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Preview: Tennessee Volunteers vs. No. 13 Ole Miss Rebels

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Get ready for a lot of points.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Josh Heupel has the Vols offense rolling right now.
Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Tennessee Volunteers (4-2, 2-1) are coming off another big win against an SEC opponent and now they’ll get an even bigger test when the No. 13 Ole Miss Rebels (4-1, 1-1) come to town Saturday night.

A win on Saturday night would mean three straight SEC wins, which is something that has happened just once since 2017. It would also mark Josh Heupel’s first win over a ranked opponent as Tennessee’s head coach.

And let’s not forget the fact that a win would move the Vols to 5-2 and that would leave them one game shy of playing in a bowl after the season.

There’s obviously a lot on the line this weekend, so let’s go ahead and dive into this week’s game preview.

Overview

  • All-time series: Tennessee leads the all-time series, 44-19-1.
  • Largest margin of victory: The Vols destroyed the Rebels, 49-0, in 1922.
  • Longest win streak: Tennessee won 12 in a row from 1902-1935, but Ole Miss has won two of the last three.
  • 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Vols currently have the 19th-best offense (81st passing, 7th rushing) and the 45th-ranked defense (73rd passing, 30th rushing). They average 41.5 points per game (7th) and have allowed an average of 21.5 points per game (37th). The Rebels have the second-best offense (20th passing, 5th rushing) and the 102nd-ranked defense (86th passing, 106th rushing). They average 46.2 points per game (5th) on offense and have allowed an average of 32.2 points per game (105th).
NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi
The Vols are currently the 2021 version of the 2020 Ole Miss Rebels on offense.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

What To Watch For

  • Fireworks: You have two top-20, well-rounded offenses that are also top-7 in the nation when it comes to points per game. You also have two quarterbacks that are not only efficient passers, but effective runners, as well. Tennessee has a slight edge defensively, but it’s doubtful that the 11 players on that side of the ball will be able to slow down Ole Miss’ offense. Expect a lot of points this week, folks.
  • Tennessee’s defense: If the Vols have a clear advantage, it’s that their defense is much better than the Rebels defense. Especially against the run. Tim Banks’ unit has shown that it can shut down the run, but it will receive a big test against the Rebels this week. Is it a coincidence that the Rebels’ only loss on the year also happened to feature their worst rushing output? Tennessee’s secondary will be tested, but this game will become much easier to win if the Vols defense can make the Rebels a one-dimensional team.
  • Third down: The Vols are 14th in the nation, converting nearly half of their third downs (49.4%), while the Rebels are 80th with a 37.7% rate. The key here is that the Rebels aren’t third down often enough to affect them - they have encountered 69 third down scenarios, which is outside the top-100 teams in the country. They’ve faced 28 third downs over the last two games, however, and have converted just 10 of them (35.7%). If Tennessee can get a couple of stops early on during drives, then you have to really like the chances of getting the Rebels offense off the field.
  • The Neyland Effect: This is looking like it will be the most-anticipated game since either 2015 Oklahoma or 2016 Florida. The decision to checker Neyland has been made, so expect a raucous environment that is going to do everything in its power to stop Lane Kiffin and the Rebels. Neyland Stadium is one of the loudest venues in the country when all is well and it can make life miserable for opposing teams. Make no mistake: The crowd will most certainly affect this game. How much it affects the game remains to be seen, but something tells me it’s going to play a big in hand in how things turn out.
  • Efficient kickers, but how will they handle potential pressure: Hey, this game could very easily come down to a field goal and guess what? The kickers for both teams are pretty reliable and there isn’t much of a difference between the two. Just like most of factors that will determine this matchup. Both Chase McGrath and Caden Costa are in the upper-half of field goal accuracy in the SEC (there are three players who have yet to miss a kick, which kind of skews things) and each player has made at least one field goal of 48+ yards. So, they can hit from afar. If this game does come down to a field goal, it will be interesting to see how these guys handle the pressure.

Impact Players

Tennessee Volunteers

  • QB Hendon Hooker: He continues to get better every week and will need to have his best game of the season this weekend.
  • RB Tiyon Evans: There’s little doubt Evans will be playing on Sundays and he will have a monster game against Ole Miss’ porous run defense.
  • WR Jalin Hyatt: Hyatt finally showed up last week against the Gamecocks. He adds another dimension to the Vols’ passing attack and said dimension will be needed this weekend.
  • DL Byron Young: Young has been improving each week and he finally got on the stat sheet with a half-sack. Ole Miss has done a good job at keeping Matt Corral upright, so it will be interesting to see how Young plays.
  • DB Jaylen McCollough: The Junior defensive back has interceptions in back-to-back weeks and has the second-most interceptions in the SEC. It would mean a ton if he can continue his ascension this week.
  • DB Theo Jackson: Heupel said on Monday that Jackson is expected to be back, which is huge news for the Tennessee secondary. Expect him to be flying around and making plays, as usual.

Ole Miss Rebels

  • QB Matt Corral: The Vols get their first true test with an elite quarterback. In case you didn’t know, Corral is currently the co-favorite to win the Heisman. The Vols may wanna try to shut him down this week.
  • Running backs: Ole Miss has three really, really good backs. And all three are really, really productive. It’s absolutely wild that the trio of Snoop Conner, Jerrion Ealy, and Henry Parrish Jr. average more than five yards per carry each.
  • WR Dontario Drummond: He’s fifth in the SEC in terms of receiving yards and is just one of three SEC receivers to have 25+ receptions, 450+ receiving yards, and over 17-yards per catch through the first six weeks.
  • DL Sam Williams: Tennessee’s weakness on offense is the front five. Williams leads the team with 5.0 sacks and two forced fumbles through the first five games. The Vols have to find a way to contain him on Saturday.
  • LB Chance Campbell: This dude is a playmaker. He leads the team in total tackles and is tied with Williams for the team-lead with 5.0 tackles for loss. Campbell came up with two huge plays against Arkansas last week, as well.
  • DB Keidron Smith: An all-around defensive back, Smith can cover and tackle, which makes him a prototypical zone coverage corner. It will be interesting to see how the Vols receivers play against him.
Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Hendon Hooker’s play will determine whether or not the Vols win this game.
Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Game Outlook

There are so many great matchups and most of the numbers from both sides align so well that it’s nearly impossible to pick a winner, here. But this is America, right? There’s no room for cowardly indecision.

Ole Miss has a slight edge on offense. The Vols have a big edge on defense. But will either edge matter on Saturday night? This game could easily come down to whomever has the ball last, which means anything goes at that point.

If the Vols can slow down Ole Miss’ ground attack, then it will go a long way toward helping them win this game. The key with doing that, however, is also containing Corral on the ground. His mobility allows the Rebels offense to be very effective when it comes to RPOs, zone reads, and play-action. Even if the Vols stop the Rebels running backs, they will still have to contend with Corral. Is the Vols defense up to the task?

The same question is asked of Ole Miss’ defense: Can the Rebels defense stop the Vols offense? So far, they haven’t been able to stop any FBS opponent in the slightest fashion. Why should this change against the top-20 offense that resides in Knoxville?

And that’s why the Vols will win this game. They’ve also cut down on the mistakes and penalties over the last two weeks, which is even more impressive considering they were going up against SEC teams. The Vols are nearly unstoppable when they play a clean game and playing a clean game will go a long way in beating the Rebels.

The Vols have just enough of an edge to win this game and they’ll do just that, while giving Heupel the biggest win of his short tenure on Rocky Top.