Tennessee and Mississippi State have taken similar trajectories this season.
It is true that three of the Bulldogs’ losses are not the caliber of some of the Vols’ losses, but there is no denying that both teams have seemingly taken a step back from where they were a year ago.
Both teams are coming in with second-year head coaches. Mississippi State’s Joe Moorehead won eight games last season, Pruitt winning just five, but there was warranted optimism for the two programs before the season began.
On Saturday, something will have to give.
Tennessee is coming off of a 43-14 loss to No. 3 Georgia. It was nothing to celebrate, to be sure, but there were a few positive takeaways that made the Vols’ immediate future a little brighter.
For Mississippi State, their last outing was just as bad but without the modicum of positivity. The Bulldogs were blasted by No. 12 Auburn, 56-23, but are coming to Knoxville off of a bye week.
For Jeremy Pruitt, the biggest concern he has for Mississippi State is their offense, which has averaged nearly 400 yards a game thus far.
“Looking at Mississippi State, I’m looking at their two-deep on offense,” Pruitt said Monday. “I think every starter they have, depending on who they have at quarterback, is a fourth or fifth year guy. It’s an experienced football team, a mature football team offensively.”
For most of the season, the Bulldogs’ offense has featured two quarterbacks in Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader. Stevens was a transfer from Penn State, where Moorehead was formally the offensive coordinator before landing in Starkville in 2018.
According to Pruitt, Tennessee’s defense will have to prepare for two quarterbacks that can use their arms and legs to make plays.
“What is the difference with (Shrader) and (Stevens) in the game,” Pruitt said. “I don’t see a whole lot. With Shrader, it looks like the running part with (Nick) Fitzgerald who was there before. Shrader can throw the football — you see how the game is called.”
“As you go back and look at their body of work, (Stevens) is running the football just as much, too. I think that’s who they are, so I don’t see a lot of differences,” Pruitt said.
Kylin Hill is also a big threat out of the backfield for Mississippi State. The junior running back has accounted for 596 yards on the ground and leads the SEC in yards after contact with 544.
Gaining yards after contact is an area where Georgia hurt the Vols last Saturday. Those Bulldogs ran for nearly 250 yards, much of which came after an orange jersey or two ricocheted off of them.
Pruitt hopes to get that fixed before facing another talented backfield as well as two mobile quarterbacks.
“Defensively (against Georgia), (there were) way too many yards after contact,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to be able to generate pass rush. They created some tight windows and covers and made some throws and catches, but we’ve got to find a way to create negative plays.”
Tennessee found a little life on the offensive side of the ball against Georgia with true freshman quarterback Brian Maurer making his first start.
Maurer passed for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the game but turned the ball over twice with an interception and a fumble.
Mississippi State’s defense makes a living off of creating turnovers, so much so, that they’ve created at least one turnover in 21-straight games which is the longest active streak in the college football.
That is something Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and the Vols’ offense will have to be mindful of with a true freshman likely starting under center for the second straight week.
“Defensively, (Mississippi State) has some really good returning players,” Pruitt said. “Last year they had one of the best defenses in all of college football. They create negative plays by bringing pressure and put the offense a little bit on their heels. It’ll be a tremendous challenge for us.”
The first meeting between Mississippi State and Tennessee in seven years will kickoff at noon Eastern at Neyland Stadium on Saturday and will be nationally televised on the SEC Network.