Nichols: Tennessee Ole Miss Matchup, Scoring Potential Create Excitement That Knoxville Has Missed

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — You can feel the buzz.

That’s something that hasn’t been said for a while about a Tennessee football game — but it’s certainly true this week.

Three days from now, Josh Heupel’s Vols (4-2, 2-1 SEC) will welcome Lane Kiffin and the 13th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels (4-1, 1-1 SEC) in a game that’s being billed as one of the biggest in the country, and rightfully so.

Kiffin’s return. Checker Neyland. Two of this country’s top-10 scoring offenses. A sold-out stadium. And a prime time slot (7:30 p.m. on SEC Network) in front of every eye across the nation.

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It’s all going down on Saturday night, and, after the muffled tones of football in 2020, I couldn’t be more amped to watch the hysteria from the press box.

"It feels like actual football again (after Covid last year),” said Tennessee defensive lineman Ja’Quain Blakely. “We were playing, but it was kind of bland. Now the fans are back and the energy is really up and going."

The atmosphere should be even more electric on Saturday, as 102.455 fans pack into Neyland Stadium to watch what should be a Top-25 clash, according to Kiffin on Wednesday’s SEC Coaches’ Teleconference.

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Obviously, his return is the leading draw for the promotion of this game. It will be his first head coaching appearance in Neyland Stadium since he bolted for USC that fateful night in January of 2010, and we all know — Kiffin included — that he will be met by a checkered wall of boos when he leads the Rebels onto the field.

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“I would think that you would think that," Kiffin told the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger  Monday when asked if this week was special for him. "It'd probably normally be the case. But there's two things here: One, that was a long time ago. Two, we've done this thing. Since USC, I've gone and played against USC, played Tennessee, played Alabama. It's not like 'Hey, all of a sudden you're going back to a place you used to coach.' "

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"We're getting ready for a challenging place to play," he added. "It's on schedule to be (Tennessee’s) first sellout in years so it's a very loud place, especially at night, and their team's playing extremely well with two conference blowouts in a row, lighting up on offense. This is going to be extremely challenging."

Kiffin has prepared for that challenge somewhat adequately, blasting Rocky Top in Ole Miss practice this week.

But Tennessee’s hostile, sellout crowd will put that preparation to the test — especially if the Vols air this electric video that shows just how insane their football cathedral can be.

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Another test will come for the Vols’ defense, which will face dual-threat Heisman candidate Matt Corral and an Ole Miss offense that ranks fifth in the nation in points per game (44.2) and second in the country in plays per minute (2.89).

So the return of guys like Theo Jackson (37 tackles, 6.5 for loss) can’t be overstated, especially considering his versatility and leadership on and off the field.

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“As soon as Theo Jackson learned he might not play, he made sure he spent every day watching extra film with Brandon [Turnage] to get him ready,” linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said this week. “Theo’s an unsung hero for what we’re doing here.”

Due in part to Jackson’s leadership, Turnage was stellar against the Gamecocks. He totaled 14 tackles, two for loss, and garnered SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors in his first career start to prove an integral, albeit still mainly backup, presence in the Vols’ back end.

Equally vital will be Jaylen McCollough, who has used his casted right hand to nab three picks this season, good for second in the conference — even after the Vols didn’t have any turnovers in the first two games.

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In total, this secondary will carry a load made heavier by the loss of Texas transfer linebacker Juwan Mitchell to season-ending shoulder surgery, especially if fellow backer Jeremy Banks feeds into the crowd and gets pulled for another WWE-style tackle — a threat Jean-Mary made real this week. 

“If those personal fouls don’t go away, we’ll have to put someone else in the game,” he said.

Moreover, that defensive load increases even more when factoring in Corral’s style and charisma in and outside the pocket. In pulling tricks that occasionally emulate Patrick Mahomes, Corral will try to avoid a Tennessee defense that’s generated 52 tackles for loss (good for first overall in the SEC and Power Five conferences) — yet has also managed just 14 sacks.

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"It's unbelievable stress on a defense,” Jean-Mary said of Corral this week. “Watching him, I know he gets a lot of praise. But when you watch him on coaches' tape, it's well-deserved. He's a complete quarterback. Super athletic kid. Super impressive throwing the ball."

Still, it’s nothing the Vols haven’t seen before — at least if you check SEC quarterback stats (where Hooker is close to Corral in several categories) or ask Alontae Taylor.

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“Hendon Hooker is a guy who does the same thing (as Corral) in practice,” the senior defensive back said Monday. “Matt Corral’s a great quarterback, but we have the same talent, I feel, at quarterback and also in our receiver room that we see in practice.”

For the Vols to succeed, they’ll need to continue what Taylor is seeing by getting the ball to playmakers: namely, JaVonta Payton, Cedric Tillman and Velus Jones Jr.  

Oh, and running back Tiyon Evans, who is also fresh off the injured list yet still ranks fifth in the conference with 486 yards in six games.

Back to those senior receivers for a moment, though. Each of those players has been dynamic this season, and their performances are a tribute to a staff that saw something in each player that perhaps wasn’t seen in previous years — or at previous stops.

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Case in point: JaVonta Payton, who has four touchdowns in each of the last four games, yet who also started just three games for Mississippi State last season.

Wide receivers coach Kodi Burns noted that Payton’s “twitchiness” was an aspect that jumped off the screen during his recruitment to Tennessee, and Payton noted that the staff mentioned his possibility for immediate impact.

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He’s since lived up to that, becoming a consistent deep threat for the Vols and one of Hooker’s favorite targets — at least in the first quarter of each game.

But to win on Saturday, UT will also need Jones — who is dynamic with the ball, “almost like a running back,” per Burns — and Tillman — who has become a top wideout after garnering just eight catches in his previous three seasons — along with a crop of young wideouts who may still have a little growing left to do.

Again, though: let’s not forget about Evans’ ability to spark this offense, or what Jabari Small can do out of the backfield, or what Hooker can do when his wheels get rolling down the sideline, or the fact that Tennessee gets everyone — outside of Mitchell, as mentioned — back this week.

And that’s all without even mentioning special teams, which could be a factor if this game lives up to its high-powered potential. 

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In the third facet of football, Jones has been dynamic — third in the conference with 300 total return yards — and Chase McGrath has been consistent — tied for fourth in the conference with an 85.7 field goal percentage.

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Whew, that was a lot. Out of breath? 

Me, too.

The good news is, neither Tennessee or Ole Miss should be, at least if they live up to the pacing they’ve each shown in becoming the top teams in plays per minute.

But if these teams do go toe-to-toe for four quarters, which I expect they will, then the crowd may need an inhaler and some cough drops to keep pace with what’s happening on the field.

Only then will that noise — that buzz that I mentioned at the start of this piece — crescendo into a wave too great to overcome.

In such a case, Lane Kiffin may need a boat to escape Neyland Stadium.

He certainly won’t be able to find a Lexus around here to drive.

Cover photo via Jake Nichols 

Source : https://www.si.com/college/tennessee/football/nichols-tennessee-ole-miss-matchup-scoring-potential-create-excitement-that-knoxville-has-missed

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Nichols: Tennessee-Ole Miss Matchup, Scoring Potential Create Excitement That Knoxville Has Missed

Source:Sports Illustrated

Nichols: Tennessee-Ole Miss Matchup, Scoring Potential Create Excitement That Knoxville Has Missed

Tennessee Officially Announces Checkered Neyland for Ole Miss Game

Source:MSN

Tennessee Officially Announces Checkered Neyland for Ole Miss Game