Going into the 2011 season, conventional wisdom was that Mississippi State had 6 wins, 3 losses and 3 swing games (Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina). The difference between the great season we all hoped for and the average one we got were the losses in those three swing games. For 2012, there are again 6 wins on the schedule, but 2 losses and 4 swing games - Auburn, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas (loss of Petrino, game in Starkville). This matchup vs. Tennessee on October 13th is the type of game that can be the difference in a good and great season.
On the surface, UT looks like they are poised for a return to prominence in 2012. While the Vols were only 5-7 in 2011, they did lose perhaps the best receiver in the SEC, Justin Hunter, in Week 3 at Florida. QB Tyler Bray also missed some time as well. For the talent they have, they still struggled too much, and did not get much better as the year progressed. This has left Derek Dooley on the flaming red hot seat - he will likely need to win at least 8 games to keep his job. He's got the players to do it ; 10 returning starters on offense and 9 on defense. Their entire offensive line is back for the second straight year. As far as experience goes, they have it - Phil Steele ranks them #1 in the country in that category.
Here's the kicker to all the experience on the field: Dooley had to replace 9 out of 11 of his assistant coaches and the strength coach. That 83% turnover in one year! The entire defensive coaching staff is new for 2012. For a coach on the hot seat, was he able to get top-notch coaches to come in knowing they may only be in Knoxville for one year? The players on the field have a lot of continuity with one another, but not with the coaches they will be learning from, and the schemes they will be running. However, one of those returning assistant coaches is offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
If Mississippi State has the best cornerbacks in the SEC, they will be tested in this game. Tyler Bray is one of the top 5 QBs in the SEC, whether he could be 1st, 5th or somewhere in between we'll see; but he has the talent to be the best. Bray throws a great deep ball and he's got the best duo of receivers in the SEC with Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. Those two guys might actually be the two best wideouts in the league.
Tennessee's offensive line has plenty of experience (and talent according to recruiting services), but will they finally play well? The same group of lineman cut their sacks allowed from 41 in '10 to 18 last year, but the UT running attack averaged a horrible 2.8 yards per carry in '11. In that department, running back is the only starter they lose...and Tauren Poole's 736 yards aren't going to be missed too sorely. Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal take over at RB, and should be able to provide enough punch for their offense.
The Volunteer D replaces both defensive ends and two of their top three tacklers but that's it. As I mentioned before though, there's an all new coaching staff in place for the defense....and they are switching to the 3-4. The two best players are cornerback Prentiss Waggner and linebacker A.J. Johnson. They lead a defense that is full of talent, and should be solid (middle of the road SEC) from top to bottom.
While there is talent across the board for this D, will they be able to produce? I'm reminded of Georgia's switch to the 3-4 in 2010. They had plenty of talent but it took until year 2 before they were able to gel and get the results they wanted. Not having any defensive coaches returning has got to hurt for a group that gave up almost 28 points per game in SEC contests last year.
This is a HUGE game for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have lost six straight to Tennessee including the 1998 SEC Championship Game. The only time State has beaten UT in Starkville was 1994 (vs. Peyton Manning). A win here could open the door to a big season, as this game coupled with the Auburn contest are key swing games in the quest for 7-0.
UT has several big games prior to coming to Starkville: N.C. State (in Atlanta), vs. Florida and at Georgia. After that game in Athens they have a bye week right before this game. MSU plays Kentucky the week prior, and that's after a bye week and weak September schedule with the exception of Auburn. Tennessee fans are marking this down as a probable win, Mississippi State fans are doing the same. I think it's a great match-up, and it should be a great game...I'm hoping the difference may be the home crowd at Davis Wade.