No one anticipated this matchup being anything special before the season. Now, going into the week, it’s one of the top matchups in the country.
It’s hard to believe that the Tennessee Volunteers program is rebounding the way that it is after over thirty players transferred out of the program before Spring Training. The complete overhaul of the school’s athletic department, so far, appears to have been the right move. Tennessee is 4-2, with losses to Pittsburgh and Florida, and has outscored their opposition 249-129.
The Ole Miss Rebels, led by Heisman candidate quarterback Matt Corral, is 4-1 this season, with their single loss coming on the road to Alabama. This year 231-155, they’ve outscored their opponents with wins over Louisville, Arkansas, Tulane, and Austin Peay.
The Rebels are favored by 2.5 as of now, with the over/under set at 82. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Tennessee a 53.8% chance of winning the Knoxville game, where they will be hosting.
Expect a lot of offensive firepower
Tennessee’s offense seems to have found a new gear under Virginia Tech transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker. He came in relief for Joe Milton in the second quarter against Pittsburgh, and the offense now comes off of two blowout conference wins over Missouri and South Carolina. The key to success in Tennessee’s offense has been running the football and the lack of turnovers. Tennessee hasn’t turned the ball over in 14 quarters.
|Opponent||Points||Pass Yds||Rush Yards||Hooker’s Total Yards||Turnovers||4th Down Stops|
|Tennessee Tech (W, 56-0)||56||215||202||263||1|
|@ Florida (L, 38-14)||14||275||148||244||0|
|@ Missouri (W 62-24)||62||225||458||305||0|
|South Carolina (W 45-20)||45||225||247||291||0|
|AVERAGE (3-1 44.3-20.5)||44.3||235||263.8||275.8||0.3|
Ole Miss, on the other hand, has been highly balanced on their offensive attack. Running with their quarterback, who’s averaging 354 yards of total offense per game, has been a deadly combination for the opposition to handle. They’re averaging 561.6 yards of offense per game and have scored over 50 points per game three times this season.
|Opponent||Points||Pass Yards||Rush Yards||Corral’s Total Yards||Turnovers||4th Down Stops|
|Louisville (W, 43-24)||43||381||188||436||0||0|
|Austin Peay (W, 54-17)||54||294||336||336||1||2|
|Tulane (W, 61-21)||61||335||372||403||1||0|
|@ Alabama (L, 42-21)||21||213||78||216||1||3|
|Arkansas (W, 52-51)||52||287||324||381||0||1|
|AVERAGE (4-1, 46.2-31)||46.2||302||259.6||354.4||0.6||1.2|
This game promises to be an epic shootout down to the end.
Matt Corral vs Tennessee Defense
Matt Corral is currently the favorite for the Heisman Trophy, and it’s been for a reason. His emergence and consistent play this season are why Ole Miss is ranked 13th in the country. Honestly, they could be higher. This season, Ole Miss has found its success running an up-tempo spread-style offense that incorporates a lot of RPO and read-option looks to help Matt Corrall utilize his legs. As I noted in my summer scouting notes this offseason, Corral is a phenomenal athlete.
He has an excellent group of receivers to distribute the ball to, even while missing his star X receiver, Jonathan Mingo. Between Braylon Sanders, Dontario Drummond, and Jacour Pearson, the Ole Miss offense comes at you fast, and they do it in a fleury of ways.
The Tennessee defense, however, has been ferocious to the pass. They’re allowing 232 passing yards per game and have fourteen sacks so far this season. On top of that, the secondary has been excellent at forcing mistakes, deflecting 26 passes, and intercepting another seven. The defense has also recovered two fumbles this season.
|Quarterback||Passing Yards||Rushing Yards||Touchdowns||Sacks||Turnovers|
|Kenny Pickett – Pittsburgh||285||19||3||2||0|
|Emery Jones – Florida||209||144||2||1||1|
|Connor Bazelak – Missouri||322||-7||0||1||2|
|Average – 2021||272||52||1.7||1.3||1|
Against higher-level quarterbacks, Tennessee hasn’t been as effective on defense. They’ve struggled to keep consistent pressure on them and surrendered 144 rushing yards to Florida quarterback Emery Jones alone. Corral has that type of athletic ability, so that will be something to keep an eye on. Can the Tennessee defense stand tall against Corral?
Tennessee RB Tiyon Evans may be the best running back in the SEC
The Tennessee running game was in shambles entering the season. Their two veteran running backs transferred to other schools, Ty Chandler choosing North Carolina while Eric Gray chose Oklahoma. Losing those two running backs may have been the best thing to happen to Tennessee.
The Volunteers landed four-star JUCO transfer running back Tiyon Evans, who has emerged as one of the best, if not the best, pure runner in the SEC. Evans has top-level speed and quickness and has the field vision to exploit space and cracks in a defense. He’s currently averaging 112 yards per game and has seven touchdowns already. He has not failed to score a touchdown in a game yet this season.
|Player||Games||Rush Yards||Average||Catches||Receiving Yards||Touchdowns|
|Tiyon Evans (TEN)||5||486||6.7||4||74||7|
|Chris Rodriguez (KEN)||6||768||6.4||25||212||12|
|Tyler Badie (MIZ)||6||667||6.4||6||23||7|
|Isaiah Spiller (TAM)||6||491||5.8||17||149||4|
|Brian Robinson (ALA)||6||526||5.4||8||77||7|
Can the Ole Miss 3-2-6 handle the Tennessee run game and Hendon Hooker?
When you look at this running game from Tennessee, currently averaging 253.7 yards per game (263.8 in games that Hendon Hooker starts), you have to wonder how well the Ole Miss defense will hold up. Last week, I wrote about how the Ole Miss defense has the capabilities to stand in the SEC, but they don’t have the right personnel for the system they want to run.
Ole Miss lost their game to Alabama because they couldn’t stop the run. Alabama ran 50 times for 210 yards, and Brian Robinson Jr scored four touchdowns in his unstoppable performance. Last week, Ole Miss faced a similar dual-threat style offense like Tennessee in Arkansas with Trelon Smith and KJ Jefferson. The Ole Miss defense surrendered 350 rushing yards on 58 carries and four touchdowns.
With these kinds of numbers that Ole Miss has surrendered in the last couple of weeks, you have to assume that the Volunteers will lean on this attack. They are especially considering the dual-threat capabilities that the offense has in Hooker.
What this game will come down to
The game is a shootout, which means that the result will be tied to the defense – which defense can hold the other team to more stops? Which defense can force more mistakes?
While the Ole Miss defense has surrendered a lot of ground over the last few weeks, they have been an opportunistic defense. So far, they’ve forced eight turnovers, three over the previous two weeks.
Tennessee’s defense has been strong early, holding opponents to just 13 points over the last three weeks in the first quarter. The long-term durability of the defense is in question, however, and the real question will be if Tennessee’s defense can force a mistake late in the game.
Overall, it’s going to be a fun one to watch. You can tune in to watch it at 7:30 PM ET on SEC Network this Saturday.