Mississippi State vs. Tennessee Preview

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A huge game, there is no doubt about it. Tennessee fans believe they are the better team, Mississippi State fans believe they are the better team. Both have reason to believe it. The spread is MSU -3, which basically means it would be a push on a neutral field. This is truly a 50/50 game where anything could happen.

There are three players for Mississippi State that haven’t played much of a role this year, but could be key in this game: DT P.J. Jones, OG Tobias Smith and TE Malcolm Johnson.

  1. P.J. Jones was suspended for the first 4 games for unknown reasons. He returned to play a little bit at Kentucky. MSU has been struggling to find the right guy to anchor the middle of the line alongside Josh Boyd. Virges, Evans, Cherrington, etc. have been used. ..perhaps P.J. can be that guy – he may even start.
  2. Tobias Smith practiced this week for the first time since before the Auburn game. His history of injuries has forced State to be careful with him and he did not play for 3 consecutive weeks: Troy, USA, bye. It has been stated that he will play a big role on Saturday night up the middle.
  3. Malcolm Johnson has not played all year due to a pectoral injury. He is a major threat in the passing game and could present a big time weapon for Tyler Russell if he is at or near 100%. If UT’s D keys on Bumphis or is able to hold down the other wide outs, Johnson has the ability to haul in some catches as he was the best receiving TE MSU had in the spring.

The big matchup of the night will be Tennessee talented WRs vs. MSU’s talented cornerbacks. Tyler Bray is 2nd in the SEC in passing with 316 yards per game. Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson make up the best tandem of WR in the conference vs. Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks making of the best tandem of CBs in the conference. Everyone will be watching that.

Something to keep an eye on, however, when Tennessee has the ball is whether or not State’s D-line can get pressure on its own. MSU only has 8 sacks this year, which is 13th in the SEC, and UT has only given up 3 – tied for 1st in the SEC. As we know, MSU always struggles with the underneath throws which allow the opposing offense to move the ball relatively easily. If the D-line can get pressure on their own and allow the linebackers to stay back in coverage that could be a huge benefit. But in all likelihood State will need to bring at least one LB to get pressure on Bray and force a throw, because with his talented arm and WRs, someone will get open with enough time.

When MSU has the ball, almost the same is true with regards to sacks. Tennessee only has 6 this year, which is last in the SEC, and MSU has only given up 3 sacks – tied with UT for 1st. Keeping Tyler Russell upright and giving him time to throw will be key. Russell has been careful with the football up to this point, but this will likely be the best defense he has faced – so all the more emphasis on pass protection.

Considering those statistics, it would seem that both quarterbacks will have time to throw…and both are good at that and have weapons to throw to. So could the key be the running game? Well MSU is averaging 179 YPG and UT 177. That is about as close as you can get.

Both teams have kickers who have struggled. Tennessee has missed an extra point in 4 out of 5 games this year. They are 8 of 10 on FGs, MSU is 6 of 10 but have made six in a row after missing the first four.

It’s hard to tell where the difference could be. UT has a slightly better offense, MSU has a slightly better defense. But one thing that might tilt the scales are turnovers.

UT is tied with MSU for 1st in the SEC with 9 INT, and they’ve forced 12 total turnovers to State’s 15. But when UT has the ball they’ve coughed it up 11 times…Mississippi State only 3 times. Whether this turns out to be a low or high scoring game, a turnover, especially a late turnover could make the difference. Tyler Bray has 6 interceptions to Tyler Russell’s 1. Something to keep in mind.

All in all, this is a massive game as State will look to turn 2012 into a special year. Derek Dooley will be coaching for his job in the pressbox. Hopefully the Dawgs will find a way to pull it out.