The Tennessee Volunteers will host the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday inside Neyland Stadium. It will be the first time these cross-conference foes have faced one another since 2012, which resulted in a 41-31 Mississippi State win in Starkville. Tennessee defeated Mississippi State 34-3 the last time the Bulldogs visited Knoxville in 2008. The Vols lead the all-time series 28-16-1.
After starting the season 2-0 with home wins over Louisiana and Southern Miss, Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1 SEC) has now lost two of its last three contests. A 28-13 victory against Kentucky to open SEC play helped ease the sting of a 31-24 loss to Kansas State the week prior. However, the joy was short-lived as the Bulldogs’ first SEC road trip of the season would result in a crushing 56-23 loss at Auburn. Fresh off a bye, Joe Moorhead’s Bulldogs will now make their way to Knoxville looking to bounce back with a win over the struggling Vols to remain above .500.
Saturday’s game will be pivotal for the Bulldogs, but it is a must-win for Jeremy Pruitt and his Volunteers. Tennessee (1-4, 0-2) kicked off its 2019 campaign in embarrassing fashion with a home loss to Georgia State. And aside from an expected blowout win over FCS Chattanooga, life has been fairly miserable for Tennessee fans ever since. While the Vols showed some signs of life in a hard-fought first half against No. 3-ranked Georgia last week, it wasn’t exactly reflected in the 43-14 final score. To make matters worse, they have now been outscored 77-17 in their first two SEC contests (Georgia and Florida). A victory over a potentially vulnerable Mississippi State team on Saturday would not only give the upset-minded Vols their first SEC win of the season, but it would also go a long way in breathing some much-needed life into the program. But it won’t come easy.
Mississippi State at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 12 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Mississippi State -7
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
The big question for Mississippi State is this: Who will be the starting quarterback on Saturday? Penn State grad transfer Tommy Stevens has started four out of five contests for the Bulldogs. But Stevens has had a hard time shaking the injury bug, giving way to true freshman Garrett Shrader to start against Kentucky and play significant minutes in three additional contests.
Stevens has performed slightly better as a passer, completing 64 percent of his passes for 448 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions to Shrader’s 59 percent completion rate for 511 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. However, Shrader’s numbers have primarily come against better competition. And he is far more dangerous with his legs, rushing for 312 yards and a pair of touchdowns, opposed to just 25 yards and two scores on the ground for Stevens. That said, we will likely see both quarterbacks at some point on Saturday. Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead has even hinted that we might see both quarterbacks on the field at the same time in some capacity.
Wide receiver Osirus Mitchell (19 rec., 277 yds., 4 TDs) has been the target of choice for both quarterbacks thus far. And there is a good possibility that both signal-callers will find some semblance of success through the air against a Tennessee defense that allows 210 passing yards per game and has struggled to generate a pass rush.
Regardless of who lines up under center against the Vols, you can fully expect the Bulldogs to lean heavily on a potent ground attack, led by Kylin Hill. The SEC’s leading rusher has run for 596 yards and five touchdowns through five games. And prior to being held to just 45 rushing yards against a stingy Auburn run defense, he had no fewer than 111 rushing yards in each of his first four contests.
Hill should bounce back and prove to be a real handful for a Tennessee run defense that allows 167.4 rushing yards per game (12th in the SEC, 85th in the FBS). The ground game will be most threatening when Shrader is taking the snaps in Mississippi State’s RPO attack.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Tennessee has an ongoing quarterback controversy of its own between junior Jarrett Guarantano and true freshman Brian Maurer. And while we could see both quarterbacks on Saturday, Maurer is the favorite to get the starting nod against the Bulldogs.
Maurer was instrumental in jumpstarting the Tennessee offense in the first half of last week’s Georgia matchup, throwing for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Vols jumped out to an early 14-10 lead. Unfortunately, the second half did not prove nearly as fruitful for the young signal-caller against a deep and well-adjusted Georgia defense. But for the first time all season, the Tennessee offense had a spark, even it was somewhat short-lived.
The Vols hope that Maurer can rekindle that spark for four quarters on Saturday. The matchup is favorable against a Mississippi State defense that is vulnerable through the air, allowing 243.4 passing yards per game (10th in the SEC, 76th in the FBS). Look for standout wide receivers Jauan Jennings (26 rec., 395 yds., 5 TDs) and Marquez Callaway (13 rec., 259 yds., 3 TDs) to get the lion’s share of the targets for the Vols’ passing attack on Saturday.
Tennessee’s run game has shown flashes with a solid trio of running backs consisting of Ty Chandler, Eric Gray, and Tim Jordan. Unfortunately, those flashes have been few and far between. Moving the chains in short-yardage situations has been a glaring problem as well. And the overall product has resulted in a ground attack that averages just 138 rushing yards per game (12th in the SEC, 90th in the FBS).
The good news for Tennessee is that Mississippi State has been equally inconsistent when it comes to stopping opposing run games, allowing 158 rushing yards per contest (11th in the SEC, 69th in the FBS). The Bulldogs surrendered 217 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground against Auburn in their last SEC road matchup.
Tennessee could very well come away with an upset and its first SEC win on Saturday if Mississippi State opts to look past the struggling Vols with next week’s matchup against LSU looming large. A Tennessee victory may also require the same kind of inspired effort we saw from freshman quarterback Brian Maurer and the Tennessee offense in the first half against Georgia, only for four quarters this time around. But that seems like a lot to ask from a Tennessee squad that has yet to put four solid quarters together all season. Mississippi State has had its struggles in that regard as well. However, the Bulldogs’ edge in the run game should be enough to methodically wear down the slightly overmatched Vols late in the game. Mississippi State narrowly finds redemption on the road in Knoxville.
Prediction: Mississippi State 31, Tennessee 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.