The Tennessee Volunteers will take a much-needed hiatus from SEC competition to host to the Southern Miss Golden Eagles out of Conference USA. The Vols enter the Saturday night matchup following a heartbreaking 29-26 loss to Kentucky on the road. It marked the fourth consecutive defeat for the 3-5 Volunteers, who remain winless in the SEC at 0-5. On the bright side, the Tennessee offense did manage to snap a 15-quarter offensive touchdown drought.
The Volunteers will now make a last-ditch effort to salvage what remains of a miserable 2017 campaign. They must win three of their final four games to become bowl eligible. And with the Butch Jones saga now reaching a fevered pitch among the fan base, it won’t be easy.
Meanwhile, Southern Miss is coming off an ugly 30-12 loss at home to UAB, which isn’t exactly boosting fan appeal for head coach Jay Hopson at the moment either. However, the Golden Eagles had won five of their previous six contests prior to last week’s loss, and Hopson’s seat is nowhere near as hot as Jones’.
Southern Miss currently sits at 5-3 on the season, tied for second place in C-USA’s West division. The Golden Eagles will make their way to Rocky Top in search of their first-ever win against the Volunteers. The two teams last met in 2007 with the Vols coming away with a 39-19 victory, dropping Southern Miss to 0–5 all-time against Tennessee.
Southern Miss at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ito Smith
Statistically, Smith (above, right) is the best running back Tennessee has faced all season. The All-Conference USA performer is well on his way to his third consecutive season with 1,000-plus rushing yards, currently sitting at 834 on the year to go along with seven rushing touchdowns. The versatile senior also is the third-leading receiver for the Golden Eagles with 27 receptions for 325 yards and two touchdowns. He is the only active FBS player with at least 3,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a career as well. Those numbers are incredibly impressive, even if they haven’t always come at the expense of top-level competition.
Smith will be a player to keep an eye on Saturday night. And he could prove to be a real handful for a generous Tennessee run defense that currently ranks 125th in the nation, allowing 252.3 rushing yards per game. But there may be hope, as Southern Miss’s last two opponents have held Smith to a combined 84 rushing yards by making him the focal point of their efforts on defense. Look for Tennessee to take that approach as well.
2. Tennessee's offense lives?
Despite last week’s loss to Kentucky, the Tennessee offense finally showed signs of life again. Even better, they did so without their top offensive weapon, John Kelly, who will return this week from suspension. The Vols posted season bests in total yards (445), rushing yards (203) and first downs (27) against the Wildcats. More importantly, they actually found the end zone — twice! Jarrett Guarantano had his best performance of the season, passing for 242 yards. And Tennessee’s young stable of running backs exceeded expectations filling the void for Kelly. True freshman Ty Chandler was particularly impressive, rushing for 120 yards and both of the Vols’ touchdowns.
Unfortunately, the Volunteer offense also found some new ways to shoot itself in the foot, racking up senseless penalties and allowing a season-high seven sacks. A few bad habits continued as well — most notably, the inability to convert on third down and in the red zone.
While the Tennessee offense looks to build on the positive aspects of last week’s performance, that may not come easy against a Southern Miss defense that ranks 27th in the nation (331.5 ypg). The Vols' red zone struggles could continue as well. Southern Miss is tied for ninth in the country in red zone defense. The Vols’ pass protection issues also may linger into Saturday’s matchup, as injuries are starting to pile up along the Tennessee offensive line.
3. Southern Miss passing game vs. Tennessee pass defense
Slowing down Smith will be priority No. 1 for the Tennessee defense, but the Vols also must contend with a solid Golden Eagles passing attack that ranks No. 40 in the nation, averaging 263.6 yards and two touchdowns per game. Southern Miss has relied on two different quarterbacks this season in sophomore Keon Howard and junior Kwadra Diggs. Both quarterbacks share similar stat lines, each throwing for a little more than 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. Both quarterbacks may see action on Saturday as well, although Howard is expected to get the start.
The one thing Tennessee has done well on defense this season is stop the pass. In fact, the Vols currently have the top-ranked pass defense in the nation, surrendering just 148.6 passing yards per game, while allowing only seven touchdowns through the air in eight games. That ranking may be boosted a bit by the fact that opposing teams have opted for a ground-heavy approach against a bad Tennessee run defense. But the Tennessee secondary has been solid all season when called upon. It should make for an intriguing matchup.
On paper, Southern Miss looks like the better team in almost every facet. But stats don’t always paint a reliable picture, and the Golden Eagles aren’t exactly facing top-level competition on a weekly basis. They are a quality team that should give the Volunteers a serious run for their money. However, Tennessee still has the advantage in overall talent. And despite all the Butch Jones drama, the Tennessee players clearly haven’t given up on the season. The offense is trending in a positive direction, and the return of John Kelly should provide an additional boost in that regard. This feels like the week that a determined Tennessee bunch finally finds a way to get over the hump and back into the win column.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Southern Miss 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.