Today’s game: Tennessee (3-2, 0-2 SEC) at No. 19 MSU (5-0, 2-0), 8:11 p.m., ESPN2 (Joe Tessitore play-by-play, Matt Millen analyst, Allison Williams sideline), XM 197, Sirius 128.
If you caught today’s GameDay section, then you saw my story about MSU having something to prove, and this is the perfect stage on which to prove itself. Sure, the Bulldogs are unbeaten and ranked in the top 20, but tonight should provide the stiffest test to date, and so a win “validates” what MSU is trying to do, to use cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith‘s words.
You know what else a win does? Makes MSU bowl eligible. That seems to have gotten lost in all the talk about respect and Tennessee’s receivers versus MSU’s corners. A win also means State will likely be 7-0 when it meets No. 1 Alabama in two weeks.
Tight end Malcolm Johnson, who missed the first five games with a pectoral injury, is dressed out and went through pregame warmups. He’s expected to play.
• Remember to follow me on Twitter for updates during and after the game. Also, don’t forget to visit the Journal’s college football page to catch up on all of today’s action. Now, let’s review MSU’s three keys to victory, as found in GameDay.
1. Mind the run game. It goes without saying that you have to defend Tennessee’s passing game, but the running game can’t be ignored. The Volunteers average 177.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks ninth in the SEC and just a shade behind MSU.
The ground attack is led by junior Rajion Neal, who’s sixth in the SEC with 92 yards per game (460 total). He averages 4.5 yards per carry and has scored four touchdowns.
State is allowing 126.0 rushing yards per game, seventh in the league.
2. Hit the big play. MSU hasn’t been the most explosive offense this season, with its 24 plays of 20 or more yards ranking 65th in the country. There have been flashes of big-play potential, and quarterback Tyler Russell certainly has a big enough arm to burn opposing defensive backs.
Tennessee has been vulnerable to the big play. In five games, it’s allowed 15 plays of 30-plus yards, eight of 40-plus and six of 50-plus. Considering how prolific UT’s offense has been, the ability to strike quickly is a good way for MSU to keep momentum on its side.
3. Close it out. MSU has not been good at putting teams away early, and perhaps Tennessee has too good an offense to drop the hammer on until late. But what’s important is that State not let up once it gets a lead, which it has done numerous times this season.
The offense has had stagnant stretches, and the defense has at times lost its aggressive edge when trying to protect a lead. Tennessee is too good to let hang around.
• Notable stat: Dan Mullen is 7-3 versus SEC Eastern Division teams.
• Weather: My Weather Channel app calls for a pleasant night. It’ll be around 74 degrees and partly cloudy at kickoff, and it’ll drop down to 70 by game’s end.