Tennessee (3-2, 0-2 SEC) at No. 19 Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0)
9 p.m. * Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville * ESPN2/106.5 FM
Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell gets overlooked in any discussion about the Southeastern Conference's renaissance at the position, but the 6-foot-4, 220-pound former four-star recruit epitomizes the Bulldogs' style of play. The junior is just eighth in the league in pass efficiency, but he's thrown 10 touchdowns to just one interception. He won't be mistaken for a flashy quarterback, but he gets the ball to tailback LaDarius Perkins, the SEC's second-leading rusher, and receiver Chad Bumphis, who's sixth in the league at 75 yards per game.
State hasn't been a big play offense, but stopping the long gains have been problematic for Tennessee's defense.
"They don't put him in a lot of positions to make bad decisions," Volunteers coach Derek Dooley said. "He just waits for somebody to have a breakdown, and they hit a big play. He's a good, accurate thrower, he manages the game really well and they're running the ball good."
One to watch
It's difficult to understate the different dynamic presented by Dooley's move to the coaches booth after he underwent surgery to repair a fracture in his hip on Tuesday. Tennessee's assistants downplayed the difference and insisted the communication via headsets won't change, and the Vols will have coaches running the point for offense, defense and special teams. Yet for a coach who's suited for the sidelines and is known for making the kind of gambles or calls that are based on gut feelings, the new location will change things.
"The one thing that was important to me is that I don't disrupt anybody else's game day duties," Dooley said. "We don't need a bunch of change, and that's not going to happen. Nothing's going to get disrupted other than my inability to look the players in the eyes [and] get a little feel for each individual and the units.
"That's the only thing I think I'm going to miss."
In the end
Mississippi State in rather untested, having played three cupcakes (Jackson State, Troy and South Alabama) and two bad SEC teams (Auburn and Kentucky). The Bulldogs have scored more than 30 points once against that slate, and Troy, statistically the best offense among that group, outgained State 572-457. But the Bulldogs are a confident, veteran bunch with some talented players.
The Vols, who have had two weeks to find solutions to problems and prepare, should be able to generate yards and score points, but can they execute in crunch time unlike they did at Georgia two weeks ago? Can the defense get enough stops? Until Tennessee beats a ranked team on the road, it's hard to say the Vols will do it.
Mississippi State 35, Tennessee 30
KNOXVILLE — One by one they spoke of something they'd only heard about or seen on television.
No player on Tennessee's roster has played a game at Mississippi State's Davis Wade Stadium. The Volunteers haven't played in Starkville since 2007. Coincidentally, that was the last time they won a Southeastern Conference road game at a place other than Vanderbilt or Kentucky.
Even Tennessee's nine fifth-year seniors, who entered the program in 2008, never have been to Starkville.
"We hear it's crazy down there," said right tackle Ja'Wuan James, a Georgia native. "Cowbells and stuff like that. It's going to be a really loud crowd.
"It's going to be another tough environment, and we're just going to have to fight through it."
Every SEC venue is intimidating in its own way, and Mississippi State is no different. It's only 13th in the league by capacity, but it's probably not that low in the noise rankings. A juiced-up crowd of 55,949 is loud, but a juiced-up crowd of 55,949 clanging cowbells for three-plus hours is really loud.
Tight end Mychal Rivera, who's from California, joked that he was going to ask if Vols coach Derek Dooley could find some tracks of cowbell noise to integrate into the piped-in crowd noise Tennessee normally uses to prepare for road games.
Cornerback Prentiss Waggner, one of those fifth-year seniors, said a couple of former teammates told him about the Starkville experience. The Louisiana native knows about the "cattle bells," which he said in his Cajun accent sounded more like "kettle bells."
"I'm looking forward to going down there," he said. "I know it's going to be a hostile environment. I think it's going to be fun."
There is only one Mississippian on the Tennessee roster, but defensive end Marlon Walls' hometown of Olive Branch is considered more Memphis than Mississippi State. The only Tennessee player who played in the well-known Mississippi junior college circuit is defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore. The former Alabama reserve was only at Gulf Coast Community College for a couple of months last season, though, before signing with the Vols.
Tailback Rajion Neal committed to then first-year coach Dan Mullen's program before eventually signing with Tennessee, but he didn't do any post-practice interviews this week.
If any Tennessee player can relate to the small-town feel of Mississippi State's campus, it's defensive lineman Maurice Couch. The junior starter played "isolated from the world almost" at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas for two seasons. He was the only Vol this week who mentioned the cowbells with an adjective.
"Annoying," he called them. "I know they've got a great crowd. It can be intimidating for some teams that's not mentally tough.
"You can't let that get to you. Of course they're going to have a crazy fan base, and with it being a small town they're going to have everybody there for support. We just have to tune that out."
It helps the home crowd, too, when the home team is ranked and playing well. Mississippi State wasn't spectacular in its 27-14 win at Kentucky last week. Then again, playing at 8 p.m. local time in front of your own rowdy crowd and playing in front of a small, quiet crowd at noon in Lexington are very different things.
For a Bulldogs team that feeds off mistakes -- Mississippi State is second in the SEC with a plus-11 turnover margin -- the Vols must not play into their hosts' hands.
"They're playing very sound football," defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. "They're not making any mistakes, and they're creating turnovers on the other side of the ball."
Tennessee could helps its cause with a good start. A bad start left the Vols playing catch-up two weeks ago at Georgia. Though they took a brief lead and had chances to complete a second comeback in the fourth quarter, that's not the ideal situation.
Especially in a new hostile environment against a team that's unbeaten, ranked 19th and playing with what even Dooley noted as "swagger" earlier this week.
"They play their butts off," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "They play very hard. I think the one thing that would show up [on tape] would be effort.
"All 11 [defensive] guys get to the football. It's hard to see a play where you don't see all those guys flying to the ball. We've got to fight fire with fire, and that's a challenge."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...