Tuesday, July 22, 2014 · 5:16 a.m.

Vols’ 2012 opponent look ahead: Mississippi State

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When: Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. Time TBA.

Where: Starkville, Miss.

Mississippi State at a glance:

Head coach: Dan Mullen

All-time record: 507-544-39

Record vs. Tennessee: 15-28-1 (Tennessee has won the last 6)

Returning starters: 5 (offense), 7 (defense)

2011 overview: In some ways the Bulldogs’ 7-6 effort in 2011 was a step back from the impressive 9-4 campaign that Mullen orchestrated in 2010, his first year in Starkville. Still, surviving life in the SEC West and defeating Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl is a significant accomplishment for a team that had struggled for much of the previous decade. Most of the seven wins weren’t very flashy in 2011, but the Bulldogs took care of business when they needed to. They also held their own against the league’s elite. They kept the LSU, Georgia and South Carolina games within two scores. The win over Wake Forest and an impressive 31-3 triumph over hated rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl gave the Bulldogs some momentum heading into 2012. The Bulldogs said goodbye to quarterback Chris Relf, running back Vick Ballard and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox at the end of the year. All had been key parts of the team’s success over the last two seasons.

Three matchups to watch:

1.MSU defensive end Denico Autry vs. Tennessee offensive tackles

Autry’s name may sound familiar to Tennessee fans. The Vols heavily pursued Autry in the 2012 recruiting class but ultimately lost out to the Bulldogs on the highly touted 6-foot-5, 255-pound junior college prospect. Autry already sits atop MSU’s depth chart at defensive end and drew positive reviews from Mullen and the other defensive coaches in the spring.

He will get a chance to line up opposite one of Tennessee’s offensive tackles — probably left tackle Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson or right tackle Ja’Wuan James. The Vols gave up only 1.5 sacks per game in 2011 with James manning the right side and Dallas Thomas — now at left guard — protecting the blind side. Autry should provide a good test for the Vols’ re-worked offensive line.

2. MSU receivers vs. Tennessee secondary

The Bulldogs don’t have that one go-to guy, but they have a strong collection of receivers with experience and playmaking ability. Arceto Clark, Chris Smith, Chad Bumphis, Jameon Lewis, Sam Williams and Ricco Sanders are among the veteran receivers returning for MSU. They will all be pushed by redshirt freshman Joe Morrow. Morrow was the star of the MSU spring game with six grabs for 97 yards and a touchdown.

There’s no Julio Jones or A.J. Green in that group, but they will certainly test the depth of Tennessee’s secondary. It could be a big test for players that may appear in a nickel or dime package such as Marsalis Teague, Eric Gordon and Byron Moore. MSU will try to spread the Vols out and let quarterback Tyler Russell use that collection of veteran receivers to his advantage.

3. Tennessee receivers vs. MSU cornerbacks

This matchup is strength against strength. UT receivers Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, when both healthy, are a nightmare matchup for any cornerback tandem. Throw in the potential of Cordarrelle Patterson, the No. 1 junior college player in the 2012 recruiting class according to 247Sports, and there may not be too many cornerbacks that can stick with the Vols.

MSU may be one team that has a shot. Johnthan Banks elected to stick around for his senior season, perhaps passing up a chance to be an early selection in the 2012 NFL draft. Banks showed he can be physical with 71 tackles, three forced fumbles and three sacks in 2011. He also proved he can be a top cover cornerback with five interceptions and nine pass breakups. He teams with fellow senior Corey Broomfield, who had an impressive 2011 himself with 59 tackles and five pass breakups.

How will it play out?

This game doesn’t pop out on the schedule like an Alabama or Florida matchup, but it could be a key game if the Vols are going to take a big step forward in 2012. MSU wasn’t spectacular in 2011 and lost several big names off of a team that only managed to win two SEC games. This is a game the Vols definitely can win, but they have some barriers to overcome.

First, they will have to learn to win on the road again. The Vols have only one SEC road win since 2007 against a team that isn’t Vanderbilt or Kentucky. Secondly, they will probably have to be able to finish off a close game. Tennessee is 4-8 in games decided by two scores or less in the Dooley era.

Until the Vols prove they can play on the road and finish off games, it’s hard to automatically put this game in the win column. They hold a slight talent advantage and would not shock anybody with a win in Starkville. It’s a game they will probably need to win if they want to reach that eight- to nine-win plateau many fans are hoping for in 2012.

 

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