Matchups to watch
Willie Bohannon & LaDarrell McNeil vs. Mississippi State's offense: Coming off a disastrous defensive outing against Georgia, the Vols are relying on two Band-Aids to stop the bleeding. Starting strongside linebacker Curt Maggitt is hampered by turf toe and the secondary is in desperate need of closing speed and playmaking ability. Bohannon,a senior with six career starts in 41 games played, will be inserted to buttress the strongside. McNeil, a freshman appearing in his fifth game, will see his playing time rise.
UT receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson vs. Mississippi State's secondary: The continued praise bestowed upon Mississippi State's secondary comes despite playing five teams with a combined record of 8-20. Nonetheless, the Vols' star wideouts will match wits with a pair of ballhawks in cornerbacks Darius Slay (four interceptions) and Johnthan Banks (three). The potential matchup between Hunter and Banks is drool-worthy. Both are projected first round NFL draft picks.
Mississippi State QB Tyler Russell: He doesn't have the arm of Tyler Bray, the pedigree of Aaron Murray or the moxie of Jeff Driskel, but Russell has thrown 10 touchdowns against one interception and leads the 5-0 Bulldogs. The junior completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 491 yards in State's two SEC victories against Auburn and Kentucky. He's been sharp in the red zone, completing eight of 12 passes for five touchdowns and no turnovers.
Tennessee RB Rajion Neal: To his credit, the junior has responded to early season chatter that he couldn't develop into an every-down back in the SEC. Don't tell that to Georgia. The Dawgs chased Neal around as he galloped to 104 rushing yards, 53 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Neal now ranks fifth in the SEC in rushing (92.0 yards per game) and averages 4.5 yards per carry.
The UT defense: The Vols have produced just one sack and one interception in the two games that matter most — a home loss to Florida and a road loss at Georgia. They've enjoyed the spoils of five sacks and nine picks in the season's other three games. Last week's bye was welcomed after a 560-yard stampede against Georgia left the defensive unit looking for its identity.
The MSU offense on third down: The Bulldogs are tied for 63rd in the NCAA with a third-down conversion percentage barely over 40 percent. Before going 10-for-18 last weekend against Kentucky, they were 10-for-38 (26.4 percent) in a three-game stretch against Auburn, Troy and South Alabama. They're 4-for-15 in the fourth quarter overall.
Tweets of the week
Mississippi State WR Chad Bumphis
"This is the biggest game we've played in since I have been at state! The good thing is, when we win, the games only get bigger! #hailstate
Mock persona of Derek Dooley's orange pants
One positive about being in the press box this weekend, not having to worry about stepping in cow manure on the field. #MissStateProblems
Professional sports handicapper
Mississippi State is -3.0 vs. Tennessee. Marks first time ever (going back to data from early 1980's) #Vols have been underdogs to #MissSt
Mississippi St. 30, Tennessee 24
The Vols are more than capable of pulling out a win in Starkville, but until the current regime wins a meaningful game, there is little reason to predict a UT victory.