A pair of Top 25 teams will collide Saturday in Baton Rouge for a compelling cross-conference SEC matchup between the No. 8-ranked Tennessee Volunteers and the No. 25-ranked LSU Tigers.
Tennessee enters Saturday's game against LSU with a big head of steam after knocking off rival Florida in Knoxville in its most recent matchup. Star quarterback Hendon Hooker led the way in the 38-33 victory, racking up 461 yards of total offense (122 rushing) and three touchdowns, helping the Volunteers snap a five-game losing streak against the Gators. Now 4-0 (1-0 SEC) on the season, the Vols will look to keep their perfect record intact in their first big SEC road test of the young season. Josh Heupel's squad should be well-rested following an open date last week. Nevertheless, they will surely have their work cut out for them for Tennessee's first visit to Death Valley since 2010. The Vols will be breaking out their "Smokey Grey" alternate uniforms for this one, marking their first appearance since 2017.
LSU (4-1, 2-0) also rolls into Saturday's matchup with some momentum. It wasn't particularly pretty, but the Tigers rallied from a 17-point deficit to knock off Auburn 21-17 on the road last Saturday night. LSU forced four turnovers and held the host Tigers scoreless in the second half to extend its winning streak to four in a row and earn a spot in the Top 25. Brian Kelly's team now awaits its toughest test of the season to this point.
Tennessee leads the all-time series against LSU 20-10-3. However, the Tigers have won each of the last five meetings, including a 30-10 victory in the most recent encounter, which took place in Knoxville in 2017.
No. 8 Tennessee at No. 25 LSU
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Heupel's fast-paced offense has been nothing short of dominant so far this season, averaging an FBS-best 559.3 yards and an SEC-best 48.5 points per game. Hooker is the driving force behind an explosive passing game that also ranks No. 1 in the nation, averaging 365.8 yards per contest. Through four games, Hooker has completed 71.7 percent of his attempts for 1,193 yards with eight touchdown passes. His 10.6 yards per pass attempt average is the best in the nation, and his 183.7 passer rating sits atop the SEC. More importantly, Hooker hasn't thrown an interception in his last 212 attempts, a stretch that dates back to last season. The dual-threat signal-caller also has run for 175 yards with three more scores. If he keeps this type of production up, and the Vols keep winning, Hooker could figure prominently in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Hooker will likely be without his top weapon in Cedric Tillman (ankle) again on Saturday, but there are plenty of playmakers to help fill the void. That includes wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, who leads the Vols in receptions (23), receiving yards (325), and touchdown catches (3). Hooker also will lean on USC transfer Bru McCoy and senior wideout Ramel Keyton, along with tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant. On the ground, the Vols are averaging 193.5 yards per game, which ranks 31st in FBS. That effort is led by a trio of capable running backs in Jaylen Wright (55 att., 256 yds., 4 TDs), Jabari Small (44, 184, 4), and Dylan Sampson (18, 89, 3).
On the other side of the line of scrimmage lies a stout LSU defense that is giving up just 293.8 yards and 14.8 points per game, both of which rank in the top 20 nationally. The Tigers have been equally stingy against the run (109.2 ypg) and pass (184.6 ypg) to rank among the top 32 teams in the country in both categories. This unit has been extremely opportunistic, generating an SEC-best 12 turnovers. But Tennessee has committed the second-fewest giveaways in the conference (five). LSU has held strong in the red zone (63.6 scoring percentage, tied for sixth in FBS), but on the other side, the Vols are a perfect 22-for-22 (19 TDs, 3 FGs) when they get inside the 20. Edge rusher BJ Ojulari (3.5 sacks) leads the way for a solid Tigers pass rush that has produced 13 sacks against an improved Tennessee offensive line that has allowed eight sacks. The LSU defense has its flaws, and Saturday's matchup against a potent Vols offense will be its toughest test to date. However, the Tigers have enough talent and depth to pose a challenge for Tennessee's offense.
When LSU Has the Ball
The Tigers are averaging a healthy 35.6 points and 443.6 yards per game, but consistency has been an issue for this offense, particularly in the passing game. Quarterback Jayden Daniels has completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 915 yards with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. But his 7.0 yards per pass attempt and 141.7 passer rating leave a lot to be desired. The Arizona State transfer also has struggled to connect with his receivers at times, most notably preseason All-America candidate Kayshon Boutte, who has just 11 catches for 97 yards through five games. Malik Nabors leads the team in receptions (22) and receiving yards (290), while Jaray Jenkins is tops with three touchdown grabs.
On the ground is where the LSU offense shines brightest, averaging 196 rushing yards per contest. Daniels has been a key cog, ranking ninth in the SEC with 321 rushing yards and three scores. Daniels did leave last week's win over Auburn early with a knee issue (bursa sac). Kelly has already started that Daniels will play against Tennesee, but it doesn't mean his mobility won't be limited. The Tigers also will be without running back Armoni Goodwin (199 yds., 5 TDs), who suffered a hamstring injury against New Mexico. But there are still options to plug into the backfield in Noah Cain (33 att., 189 yds., 4 TDs), John Emery Jr. (28, 119, TD), and Josh Williams (28, 113, 2).
Tennessee's offensive exploits have taken some of the attention off of the defense. The Volunteers are giving up 407 yards and 19 points per game on average, but the numbers require further analysis. While the defense has been particularly stingy against the run, allowing just 97.8 yards per contest (21st nationally), the opposite has been true against the pass. Tennessee is ranked at the bottom of the FBS leaderboard in passing defense, giving up 309.3 yards per game through the air (128th). That bodes well for Daniels, assuming better cohesion between him and his receivers. The Vols have done a better job on third down (28.3 percent conversion rate) compared to LSU (34.9 percent) and could have an advantage when it comes to getting pressure on the pocket. Tennessee doesn't have a bunch of sacks in the early going (nine), but the defense has been getting to the quarterback (42 hurries), and pass protection has been an issue for the Tigers' young offensive line (16 sacks allowed). The opportunity is there for Daniels and Co. to exploit the Vols' biggest weakness on defense, but it requires this LSU offense to reach a new level of consistency throwing the ball it has yet to show.
There are plenty of reasons to like both teams in this matchup. LSU will obviously benefit from home-field advantage. However, that is somewhat diminished by the early (11 a.m. local time) kickoff. Tennessee is coming off of a bye, but that also could mean some rust to shake off. And while the Volunteers' defense certainly has holes to exploit, it remains to be seen if Daniels and the Tigers' passing game are capable of doing so. Conversely, Hooker is as steady as they come in leading this high-powered Tennessee offense. Additionally, the fast-paced tempo will be an issue for the LSU defense. Hooker will be the difference, as the Vols escape Death Valley with a narrow win to remain undefeated.
Prediction: Tennessee 34, LSU 31
Podcast: Week 6 Preview, Predictions, the Latest in Coaching Changes, and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
*Price as of publication.