Tennessee-Mississippi St. Preview
While the offense has more than held its own, undefeated Mississippi State continues to turn heads behind one of the more stifling defenses in the country.
Tennessee, meanwhile, is hoping to come out with a much-improved defensive display following its bye.
Looking to extend their best start in 13 seasons, the No. 19 Bulldogs try to avoid a seventh consecutive loss to the Volunteers as the Southeastern Conference rivals square off in Starkville on Saturday night.
Mississippi State limited Kentucky to 228 yards of total offense last Saturday, improving to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in conference play with a 27-14 road win. The Bulldogs are tied for fourth in the nation with 15 forced turnovers - despite failing to get one versus the Wildcats - and rank 11th with an average of 13.4 points allowed.
Mississippi State hasn't opened 6-0 since 1999, when it won its first eight games to set a school record.
"They got a great defense," Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray said. "They got guys all around making plays. It's gonna be a tough game (Saturday)."
While moving the ball hasn't been an issue for a Volunteers team averaging 39.4 points, it hasn't been able to slow anyone down.
After getting outgained 555-340 in total offense during a 37-20 defeat to then-No. 18 Florida on Sept. 15, Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) allowed 560 yards in a 51-44 loss at then-No. 5 Georgia on Sept. 29, its ninth loss in 10 conference games.
Surrendering 186.2 on the ground per game and 5.2 per carry, the Volunteers gave up 336 rushing yards to the Gators and 274 to Georgia.
"We've obviously got a lot of issues on defense stopping the run that we've got to correct on this open date or we're not going to beat anybody," said coach Derek Dooley, who is recovering from surgery on his fractured right hip and will coach from the press box Saturday.
While Tennessee's woes could lead to another big day for Mississippi State running back LaDarius Perkins, Dooley is hoping a week off makes all the difference.
"We've had a good couple of days," he told the school's official website. "This is a big time for our team and I told them that. It's time to go out there and start acting on all the lessons we've learned in these earlier games.
"We just have to go out there and be ready on the road, go out there and finish four quarters and be able to execute the plays you need to execute to win a football game. That is where we are."
The Volunteers could have their hands full with a Bulldogs offense that's scored at least 25 points in each of its first five games for the first time in the program's 113-year history. Perkins ranks second in the conference with an average of 99.8 rushing yards while Tyler Russell has thrown 10 touchdown passes with only one interception.
Tennessee has taken nine of 10 from Mississippi State, winning each of the last six matchups by average of 24.5 points. The Volunteers, who haven't lost in this series since a 24-21 defeat in 1994, posted a 34-3 rout the last time these teams met in 2008.
"I'm excited about this game. An eight o'clock kickoff and it will be a great a environment here," coach Dan Mullen said. "I know our fans are going to be fired up and our student body is going to work hard to give us the home field advantage - which is critical. You want to put yourself in a position to win championships, so you have to win home games."
Slowing down Rajion Neal could prove crucial for Mississippi State. After running for a career-high 151 yards during a 47-26 win over Akron on Sept. 22, the junior back compiled 104 yards on the ground and a touchdown against Georgia, adding five receptions for 53 yards and another score through the air.
"He's starting to understand that he needs to be physical," Bray said. "Before, he was trying to be the little scatback trying to make all the moves. Now he knows he needs to be a downhill runner, and it's paying off for him."
Loser in 19 of 20 against ranked foes, Tennessee has been outscored by an average of 20.6 points during a 13-game slide against Top-25 opponents.