KNOXVILLE — Tennessee didn’t become the ninth winningest program in college football history by stringing together losses.
The Volunteers have won 70 percent of the games they’ve ever played, and only twice have they lost seven games in a season. They’ve played in the Southeastern Conference since its inception in 1933, and they’ve only once lost six league games in a season.
Those numbers could grow today. UT (3-6, 0-5) hosts Mississippi (4-5, 1-4) in a noon matchup of cellar-dwellers from the SEC’s Eastern and Western divisions.
Each team desperately needs a win to keep bowl hopes alive. The Rebels still have to face two ranked teams: LSU and archrival Mississippi State.
“I’d like to get motivated by saying let’s win an SEC game before we talk about a bowl game,” first-year Vols coach Derek Dooley said. “That ought to motivate us more, because we haven’t done that. We’re 0-5. I’m not going to sit here and say that nobody should think about the bowl game, because that’s human nature. But we’re not going to get to a bowl game if we don’t beat Ole Miss. That’s all our mind should be on.
“The biggest thing is let’s go out there and put together a complete game against an SEC opponent. We haven’t done that.”
Ole Miss has done that only once, and the Rebels also lost to Vanderbilt and FCS program Jacksonville State.
“I think it’s no secret that they’re a lot like us,” Rebels coach Houston Nutt said of the Vols. “There are still bowl possibilities for both teams. There is a lot to play for. It’s about how you finish in November.
“We will have their best, there is no doubt in my mind, and we are going to give them our best.”
The Vols got Ole Miss’s best last season. They got the best out of the Rebels’ best player, anyway.
No UT player who traveled to Ole Miss for last season’s 42-17 loss has forgotten the record-breaking afternoon of Dexter McCluster. The Kansas City Chiefs teammate of former Vols All-American Eric Berry rushed for 282 yards and four touchdowns on just 25 carries. He crossed the goal line from 15, 23 and 32 yards before his 71-yard, spirit-stifling score early in the fourth quarter.
No Ole Miss player ever had accumulated so many rushing yards in one game. No UT defense had ever surrendered that many rushing yards in a game to a single player — not Bo Jackson, not Herschel Walker, not Darren McFadden, not any of the greats from previous generations.
“I’ve never in my life — as a player, or just watching it on TV or whatever — seen somebody be so dominant against an entire defense,” Vols junior cornerback Anthony Anderson said. “We tried everything, and we just couldn’t tackle the guy.”
Sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner, whose first SEC start at safety came last season at Ole Miss, remembers that dreadful day “like it was yesterday.”
“I was getting my feet wet. I think I had a lot of mental errors out there on the field because the tempo of the game was so fast,” Waggner said. “Ole Miss was running a lot of high-tempo offense, something like Oregon, so I think that game was pretty fast for me, a lot of shifting in motion and things like that.
“I wouldn’t say I was pretty ready for that game, so hopefully I can get better this year.”
But, as UT senior defensive end Gerald Williams said with a smile, McCluster now is in the NFL. The Rebels are centered around senior quarterback Jeremiah Masoli — a former Heisman Trophy candidate from Oregon — and tailback Brandon Bolden.
Masoli had not been cleared for contact as of Thursday night after sustaining a concussion in last week’s win over Louisiana-Lafayette, but the Vols have prepared all week to face the 5-foot-11, dual-threat dynamo.
Ole Miss’s big, talented defensive line also has been a concern all week for UT’s coaches, who can only counter with a young group that probably won’t feature usual starting guard Zach Fulton.
The Vols snapped a four-game losing streak with a 50-14 win last week over miserable Memphis, when freshman quarterback Tyler Bray celebrated his first college start by passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns in the first half.
But Dooley and Co. know the challenge today will be much tougher.
“It’s a big game for both teams,” Dooley said. “Both teams have probably not had the wins they both wanted or expected coming into the year. There’s a lot of implications here in November for both squads. We’re going to get their best shot, I know. They’ve scored a lot of points and run for a lot of yards. That’s the thing that frightens you the most from our defensive standpoint. We haven’t really done a very good job of keeping points down. That’s going to be a challenge. They lead the conference in punt returns. That’s helped them on field position. And the big thing you notice on their defense is they’ve gotten 25 sacks.
“Big challenge for us, and what we have to do is continue to build on some of the success we had last week. I’m sure our team will be energized because of it. We’ll see how we do.”