The 13th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels and Tennessee Volunteers are set for a Saturday night cross-conference shootout in front of a sell-out crowd inside Neyland Stadium. There should be no shortage of fireworks in this prime-time matchup between two of college football’s most explosive offenses.
Adding to the intrigue and the animosity, Lane Kiffin returns to Rocky Top for the first time as an opposing head coach on Saturday night. Kiffin served as Tennessee’s head coach for one season before his abrupt and shocking departure for USC back in 2010. A move that prompted chaos in the streets of Knoxville at the time, and a big reason why many Vol fans still hold great disdain for Kiffin to this day.
Nevertheless, the Lane Train is on its way! And Kiffin has the Rebels riding high following last Saturday’s thrilling 52-51 win over SEC foe Arkansas in Oxford. The Razorbacks failed to convert a potential game-winning two-point conversion as time expired, allowing Ole Miss to survive the back-and-forth affair. The win helped the Rebels improve to 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the SEC, with their only loss this season coming on the road against Alabama.
Tennessee and first-year head coach Josh Heupel are riding their own wave of momentum after securing back-to-back conference wins in blowout fashion over the last two weeks. The Vols followed up a 62-24 thrashing of Missouri in Week 5, with an impressive 45-20 victory over South Carolina last Saturday in Knoxville. Tennessee racked up 472 yards of offense and scored 28 straight points in the first quarter on its way to an easy win against the Gamecocks. Now sitting at 4-2 overall and 2-1 in SEC play, the upset-minded Vols will turn their attention to Ole Miss for the first of a brutal four-game gauntlet against SEC teams that are all ranked in the top 15.
Tennessee holds a 44-19-1 lead in the all-time series against Ole Miss. The Rebels won the most recent meeting back in 2014 by a score of 34-3, but that win was vacated as a result of NCAA sanctions. The Vols and Rebels last faced off in Knoxville in 2010, resulting in a 52-13 win for Tennessee. Saturday night will mark the third meeting ever between Kiffin and Heupel as head coaches. Heupel’s UCF squad defeated Kiffin’s FAU Owls in both 2018 and 2019.
No. 13 Ole Miss at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Ole Miss -2.5
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
Quarterback Matt Corral is the engine behind a high-powered offense that averages an SEC-best 521.6 yards and 46.2 points per game. Corral has been nothing short of spectacular this season, completing 69.2 percent of his pass attempts for 1,497 yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions, averaging an SEC-best 10.3 yards per pass attempt. The Heisman hopeful also has been phenomenal with his legs. Corral has rushed for 255 yards and is tied for the SEC lead in rushing touchdowns with eight. Dontario Drummond (26 rec., 460 yds., 5 TDs) and Braylon Sanders (12, 292, 3) provide a strong one-two in the receiving corps. Drummond leads the SEC in receiving yards per game (92) and ranks second in touchdown catches with five. Meanwhile, Sanders has stepped up to fill in for the injured Jonathan Mingo and now leads the SEC in yards per catch (24.3).
As per usual, the Ole Miss passing attack should have the edge against a Tennessee defense that has been somewhat generous through the air, giving up 232.2 passing yards per game. That said, the Volunteers are no pushover, ranking a very respectable 29th nationally in terms of yards allowed per pass attempt (6.4). The Vols also lead the SEC in passes defended with 33 and have just as many interceptions as touchdown passes allowed (seven each). Safety Jaylen McCollough leads the Vols with three interceptions.
One of the more intriguing matchups will come in the trenches. The Ole Miss offensive line has been strong in pass protection, allowing only eight sacks in five games. But the Rebels will be put to the test against a solid Tennessee defensive front that accounted for four sacks just last week against South Carolina. Linebacker Jeremy Banks has 3.5 sacks on the year to lead the Vols.
The Rebels’ have been outstanding in the passing game, but they have shined even brighter on the ground with a rushing attack that ranks fifth nationally, generating 259.6 yards per game. Running backs Snoop Conner (38 att., 247 yds., 7 TDs), Henry Parrish Jr. (54, 334, TD), and Jerrion Ealy (40, 204, TD) join forces with Corral to form one of the most potent backfields in the country. On the other side of the line of scrimmage lies a Tennessee defense that has been stout against the run, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry. Tennessee leads the SEC in tackles for a loss with 52. And the Vols hope to get leading tackler and star defensive back Theo Jackson back this week after sitting out the South Carolina game with an undisclosed injury. Alabama transfer Brandon Turnage filled in for Jackson and earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 14-tackle performance against the Gamecocks. Nevertheless, the Vols will have a very difficult time trying to contain a dynamic Ole Miss run game on Saturday night.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
The Vols are averaging an impressive 474 yards and 41.5 points per contest. And they have grown very accustomed to fast starts, outscoring their six opponents 101-13 in the first quarter. Quarterback Hendon Hooker spearheads the fast-paced Tennessee attack and is a big reason for the Vols’ success on offense. Hooker has connected on 69.6 percent of his pass attempts for 1,063 yards with 13 touchdowns against only one interception. And his 185.9 passer rating is the best among starting SEC quarterbacks. The dual-threat signal-caller also has produced 282 rushing yards and three scores on the ground. To this point, Hooker has leaned heavily on a trio of veteran wide receivers in Velus Jones Jr. (22 rec., 342 yds., 3 TDs), Cedric Tillman (16, 210, 2), and JaVonta Payton (9, 216, 4). Payton has scored a touchdown in each of his last four games and serves as a deep threat, averaging 24 yards per catch. Tennessee’s only liability in the passing game is an offensive line that has been inconsistent in pass protection, surrendering an SEC-high 20 sacks. That bodes well for explosive Ole Miss edge rusher Sam Williams, who is tied for the conference lead with five sacks. But that may be the only advantage for an otherwise uninspiring Ole Miss pass defense that ranks 13th in the SEC, allowing 238.6 yards per game through the air.
Tennessee should have success through the air on Saturday night, but much like Ole Miss, the strength of the Vols’ offense lies in the run game. Tennessee ranks sixth in the FBS in rushing yards per game (253.7) and is tied with Ole Miss for the conference lead in rushing touchdowns (18). Over the last two games alone, the Tennessee rushing attack has racked up 705 yards and eight scores on the ground. Standout running back Tiyon Evans (73 att., 486 yds., 6 TDs) ranks second in the SEC in yards per carry (6.7) and has done most of the heavy lifting of late for the Vols. Evans should have a little more help this week with the anticipated return of running back Jabari Small (44, 232, 2), who has missed the better part of the last two games with an unspecified injury. The Vols should have no trouble keeping its ground game rolling on Saturday night against a porous Ole Miss run defense that ranks 12th in the SEC and 108th nationally, giving up 193.6 rushing yards per game. Linebacker Chance Campbell has been the Rebels’ best defender against the run with a team-high 38 tackles.
There are plenty of reasons to like Ole Miss in this matchup, which is why the Rebels are favored on the road. Chief among those reasons is a high-octane offense that is as dangerous as any that Tennessee will face all season. The Rebels also lead the SEC in turnover margin and have a better track record of limiting mistakes and taking care of the football. That could pay big dividends in a matchup where the margin for error is razor-thin.
The good news for the Volunteers is that they also feature an explosive offense that is fully capable of lighting up the scoreboard on Saturday night. And unlike Ole Miss, Tennessee has at least proven to be somewhat competent on the defensive side of the football. The Vols also catch the Rebels at an opportune time, as Ole Miss is likely to be a little worse for the wear following an exhausting two-game stretch against Alabama and Arkansas. Sprinkle in a little home-field advantage in front of a sell-out crowd inside Neyland Stadium, and you have the recipe for an upset. Tennessee survives a hard-fought shootout to spoil Kiffin’s return to Knoxville.
Prediction: Tennessee 48, Ole Miss 45
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.