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NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee’s chance to rest and heal is over with, now it’s on to LSU. The Tigers have kicked off the Brian Kelly era with a 4-1 start, picking up SEC wins over Mississippi State and Auburn to begin conference play. Both games were come from behind victories.

LSU’s only loss came to open the year in New Orleans against Florida State.

“They continue to find ways to win,” Heupel said on Monday of LSU. “They’re a good football team. They’re long, they’re athletic on both sides of the line of scrimmage and obviously have really good skill players, too.”

Expectations weren’t particularly high for Kelly’s year-one Tigers, however they’ve now cracked the AP top 25. Kelly is leaning heavily on Arizona State transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels, but not in a traditional way. The passing game is lacking, but Daniels, along with a committee of running backs, are getting things done on the ground.

LSU’s rushing attack currently ranks fifth in the SEC.

“For us defensively, eyes, keys as tight ends are exiting the formation, that’ll be critical in this football game,” Heupel said. “The quarterback run absolutely is a huge part of the football game. That can be in some read game, but also just as the pocket breaks down or he goes through his progression, his ability to escape.

“The way they finish runs is probably a little bit different just in their style, but absolutely, the mobility of the quarterback is a huge part of us having to defend that in this football game.”

Daniels leads the team with 321 yards rushing. Four backs have split duty to this point, each guy getting 28+ carries so far this year.

LSU still has plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball, too. The Tigers rank 19th nationally in total defense, and held Mike Leach’s offense to just 16 points a few weeks ago. The defense has come up big late in games, helping LSU close out games and get to 4-1.

“The front four, they’re big, physical, long, athletic,” Heupel said. “They have the ability to apply pressure to the quarterback and break the pocket down. You want to stay out of long-yardage situations against them. On the back end, they have a bunch of new bodies to their roster with a bunch of transfers. Those guys have played a lot of football. I think they continue to get more in-sync and more comfortable in their scheme.

“For us, we’ve got to have balance in what we’re doing, so run game on early downs will be critical. Playing from ahead of the chains is going to be critical in this game.”

The Vols will have to deal with former Tennessee commit BJ Ojulari coming off of the edge. The former four-star edge rusher has 3.5 sacks on the year.

Tennessee is still waiting to see if Cedric Tillman can go as he continues to rehab his way back from a high ankle sprain. It would be considered a surprise if he did, meaning it would be on Bru McCoy, Jalin Hyatt and Ramel Keyton to once again carry the passing attack.

The Volunteers hardly missed a beat against Florida without Tillman, thanks to a lights out performance from Hendon Hooker. He’ll need another big game here on the road as he faces a pretty solid unit.

“You’ll see press-man at times, but you see a bunch of coverage variation from them, too, so Hendon’s got to do a great job of identifying the rotations,” Heupel said. “Our receivers have got to do the same thing. When it is man-to-man, you’ve got to find a way to go win. You guys have seen us, since we’ve gotten here, that we’re going to try to put those guys in position to win, but we also trust those guys to go win in those situations.”

Winning in man-to-man is Tillman’s specialty, so not having him available would obviously be a tough situation to deal with.

Tennessee is holding steady in the gambling markets, still standing as a three point road favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Kickoff is set for Noon ET on ESPN on Saturday.

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