A special kind of buzz is in Knoxville’s air this week. The Tennessee Volunteers (4-2), coming off of two SEC blowout-wins, are preparing to face former head coach Lane Kiffin’s 13th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels (4-1) Saturday night in a sold-out, checker-boarded Neyland Stadium. This is the first sellout for UT since 2017 against Georgia, also the last time “Checker Neyland'' was in effect. The Vols lost that game 41-0 and are hoping for a much better result this time around.
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel spent another Wednesday night on Vol Calls this week and began by commenting on the upcoming ferocious atmosphere.
“Got a huge game this weekend,” Heupel said. “Can’t wait to see it, to be honest. We got the most special place in America to play football and to see it packed out on Saturday night, see it checker-boarded out, it’s going to be a spectacular event. Looking forward to it.”
Momentum is certainly on the side of the Vols right now. Tennessee is coming off a 45-20 win over South Carolina last week, a game in which they led 28-0 at the end of the first quarter. Carrying over that success to this Saturday will be huge.
“You’re only as good as your next one in athletics, too, but just the growth of our kids, understanding of who we are and what we’re about, and that translates into how we play on Saturday afternoons,” Heupel said. “Our kids have experienced success. Got to handle success the right way. They’ve been really good this week. I think there's a focus from there. Man, the preparation’s been great on the grass as we competed on Tuesday and Wednesday.”
A big part of Tennessee’s defensive success against the Gamecocks was redshirt sophomore, Brandon Turnage. Starting for the first time this season in place of injured Theo Jackson, Turnage recorded 14 tackles and was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week.
Heupel commented on what he learned about Turnage during Saturday’s game.
“Effort, strain, competitiveness. Those are the attributes that lead to going and making a play,” Heupel said. “But it starts with communication, being able to line up and in communication for him, but then the ability to get other people lined up with adjustments based on formations. Man, he did a great job on Saturday afternoon.”
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral is one of the top players in the entire country. The junior signal-caller has 1,497 passing yards this season with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s second in the nation in quarterback rating with an 89.9.
“Containing Matt Corral, absolutely I think it’s important to understand that at some point, he’s going to make some plays, too,” Heupel said. “How you respond after that is as important as anything. Bottling him up is really important. When you’ve got a chance to hit him, you’ve got to hit him. You’ve got to make the pocket uncomfortable for him. At the same time, while you’re doing that, you can’t let him escape, and that can be up through the pocket, it can be around it, out the backside of it. You’ve got to bottle him up.”
The offenses of Tennessee and Ole Miss are extremely similar. Both are focused on playing fast and running the ball effectively.
“Yeah, some similarities in offensive play, for sure,” Heupel said. “Running the football for both offenses is extremely critical. Winning the line of scrimmage is going to be important in this football game in every phase of the game. The defensive line, linebackers and safeties got to fit it right. Got to do a great job of tackling in space."
“The quarterback is a part of their run game. You’ve got to be able to manage and contain him. Some of that’s on reads. Some of that’s designed quarterback runs. That part of it is a huge part of getting people in third-and-long and that gives you the opportunity to get off the football field in this game.”
The environment on Saturday is going to be a spectacle. As much as it’s a positive, it could also turn into a distraction. Heupel is making sure his team doesn’t get caught up in the moment and stays focused on the task at hand.
“We talked about it. At the end of every practice, we’re talking about it. Competitive composure,” Heupel said. “We’ve played smart football the last couple weeks. That’s (cutting down) turnovers, but that’s also penalties. When we have not been right on that side of it, I think the emotions of the football game have been a big part of the things that have transpired. Wanting something bad enough can parlay into just how you react to something.”
Tennessee and Ole Miss will clash Saturday, Oct. 16 at Neyland Stadium at 7:30 p.m. EST.