With the new SEC scheduling format, MSU plays only two games against Eastern Division foes this fall, and this is the second one of those. Tennessee re-enters the rotation this year, and it's the first meeting between these schools since 2008. It's the first time the Volunteers have visited Starkville since 2007, when they came in and won 33-21.
As I've mentioned before, MSU has a good chance to start the season 6-1 or even 7-0 because of the way the schedule falls. This could be one of the tougher obstacles to such a good start, depending on how far UT has come under coach Derek Dooley.
Tennessee Volunteers (Oct. 13, in Starkville)
• Conference: SEC
• 2011 record: 5-7 (1-7, 6th Eastern Division)
• Final ranking: Not ranked
• Coach: Derek Dooley (11-14, two years)
• Returning starters: 21 (10 offense, 9 defense, 2 specialists)
• Last meeting: Tennessee, 34-3 (Oct. 18, 2008, in Knoxville)
• On the Web: utsports.com
Quarterback Tyler Bray was having an all-SEC type season in 2011 before a hand injury sidelined him for five games. Over the first five games of the season, Bray completed 116 of 176 passes (65.9 percent) for 1,579 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Vols were 3-2 when Bray got hurt, and then went 1-4 without him. He's back and healthy this year, and with so many returning on offense, there are some high hopes in Knoxville that this can be one of the league's more productive units. Last season, Tennessee ranked 10th in the SEC in scoring offense (20.3 ppg) and ninth in total offense (332.7 ypg). It was obviously a strong passing team (third, 242.6 ypg) but was the league's worst rushing team (90.1 ypg, ranked 116th nationally).
Tennessee is looking to sophomore Marlin Lane for a run game boost. In a backup role last fall, he played in all 12 games and rushed for 280 yards (3.7 ypc) and two TDs. Lane had 106 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, with 103 of those yards in the first half.
He's running behind an offensive line that's plenty experienced and, in theory, should open up more running lanes this year. They provided good pass protection last season, allowing only 18 sacks, so Bray should be able to do his thing. His top target is 6-foot-3 junior Da'Rick Rogers, who made a league-leading 67 catches for 1,040 yards and nine TDs last year. This receiving corps is promising and has good size, including junior Justin Hunter (6-4, 200 pounds) and tight end Mychal Rivera (6-3, 251), who was second on the team last year with 29 catches for 344 yards.
UT had a middle-of-the-pack defense, the big losses being tackle Malik Jackson, who made 10.5 tackles-for-loss last fall, and leading tackler Austin Johnson, a linebacker. The Vols are switching to a 3-4 look this year under new coordinator Sal Sunseri, one of seven new assistants on Dooley's 2012 staff. Sunseri was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach at Alabama the past three years, helping lead one of the nation's top defenses as the Crimson Tide won a pair of national championships during his stay.
The presumptive starting three up front had eight combined starts last year. At one defensive end spot is juco transfer Darrington Sentimore, who had 39 tackles, 7.0 sacks and 5.0 TFLs last year for Gulf Coast CC.
The top returning tackler is sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson, who had 80 stops and made 10 starts. He's a big kid at 6-3, 244, and was named a freshman All-American by several publications.
The defensive backfield has eight players with varying degrees of starting experience, led by cornerback Prentiss Waggner, who had 48 tackles and two interceptions last season. UT had only nine INTs last year, 11th in the league. As a whole, the defense had 18 takeaways, which was a shame because the offense only turned it over 18 times. That's an area where the Vols might find an advantage this year.
It's the third year for Dooley, who has kept the wolves (fans) at bay for the most part so far. Another sub-.500 season, though, and the rumblings will get louder. Beating MSU would give Dooley his first road win against a West team (he's 0-3) and perhaps help the Volunteers get back on track.