The Tennessee Vols are set to take on the Ole Miss Rebels on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee announced earlier this week that the game is sold out. A potent Vols offense, combined with two straight SEC wins and the return of Lane Kiffin to Knoxville, sets the stage for a potentially wild night in Neyland.
If Josh Heupel can upset Ole Miss in his first year as the Volunteers’ head coach, it will send fans into a frenzy on Saturday night. A 5-2 record in October with a 3-1 mark in SEC play would be a better beginning to the Heupel era than I think anyone could’ve imagined.
So how do the Vols pull off the upset?
I actually think this game is a great matchup for Tennessee — at least when it comes to the offensive side of the ball.
The running game will be the key to victory for the Vols. Ole Miss doesn’t defend the run very well. The Rebels are No. 106 in the nation in run defense. The only FBS team that’s been worse against the run that UT has played this season was Missouri (ranked No. 130, dead last, against the run). And the Vols rushed for a ridiculous 458 yards against Mizzou.
Tennessee also had success against teams with tough run defenses in Pittsburgh (No. 20 against the run, Vols rushed for 136 yards) and Florida (No. 27 against the run, Vols rushed for 148 yards).
The Vols shouldn’t have any issues running the ball against Ole Miss and their 3-2-6 base defense.
If Tennessee can run the ball effectively, then it’s going to open up the vertical passing game. And the Rebels are particularly susceptible to giving up big plays against a team like UT.
The Vols probably aren’t going to find much success in the short passing game against Ole Miss. The Rebels’ safeties are big and physical. But they don’t have the deep speed to keep up with some of Tennessee’s faster receivers.
The Rebels’ defensive philosophy is to keep everything in front of them.
That means the Volunteers should have plenty of opportunities for some big plays down the field.
The key to winning this game will be for UT quarterback Hendon Hooker to hit on more of those big plays than he has been (the Tennessee receivers have to help him out, this isn’t a game where the Vols can afford a dropped pass on a would-be touchdown).
Of course, none of this matters if Tennessee can’t stop the Ole Miss offense.
Kiffin runs a similar offense to Heupel (the Rebels’ offensive coordinator, Jeff Lebby, was Heupel’s offensive coordinator for two years at UCF).
Ole Miss is going to have guys open. They’re going to confuse the UT defense.
Just like they did against Arkansas last week.
UT is going to give up some points. They’re not going to shut down the Rebels’ offense. This will be the true definition of a “bend but don’t break” effort from the Vols’ defense.
The good news is that Tennessee’s defense defends a similar offense every day in practice.
Tennessee’s best chance to win this game is to force 3-4 turnovers while hitting on more than half of their deep play opportunities.
This isn’t a bad matchup for the Vols. It’s just going to require better play from Hooker and the UT receivers than we’ve seen so far this season.
The Ole Miss offense is really good, but the Vols have the better defense. And that could be the difference in this game.
Featured image via Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports/Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK