As Matt Corral drops back to send the ball downfield to Dannis Jackson, the infamous sounds of Neyland Stadium blare through the speakers at the Ole Miss Football practice field and into his ears. Much to the surprise of his players, Lane Kiffin opted to queue up “Rocky Top,” the classic fight song for the Tennessee Volunteers, during Tuesday’s practice.
On Saturday, Oct. 16, the Ole Miss Rebels will enter Neyland Stadium to take on the Tennessee Volunteers at 6:30 p.m. CT in what will mark the return of Lane Kiffin as a head coach since he led the Vols in 2009. After Kiffin’s controversial decision to leave, many Tennessee faithful fans protested his departure and they will likely create a hostile environment this coming Saturday.
“We have a lot of work to do, and we’re getting ready for a challenging place to play. It’s on schedule to be their first sellout in years so it’s a very loud place, especially at night, and their team’s playing extremely well with two conference blowouts in a row, lighting up on offense. This is going to be extremely challenging,” Kiffin said during his weekly press conference.
In their first sellout in four years, Tennessee will be looking for their third SEC win in a row. After losses to the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Florida, Tennessee flipped a switch, blowing out SEC foes Missouri and South Carolina.
In their 14-38 loss to Florida, quarterback Hendon Hooker was sacked four times and had a completion percentage of 56%. The following week, the Vols put up 683 yards on offense in their 62-24 win over Missouri, with Hooker throwing for 225 yards and three touchdowns. He finished the day with a completion percentage over 78%. Although Hooker did not earn the starting job at the beginning of the season, he has continued to develop and prove himself after starter Joe Milton suffered an injury against Pittsburgh.
While it appears Tennessee has been blowing their latest opponents out of the water, they faced a lackluster 3-3 Missouri team and a South Carolina offense that put up only 101 rushing yards against Troy out of the Sun Belt Conference.
On the other side of this matchup, Ole Miss is riding high after beating then No. 13 Arkansas in a packed house at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Oct. 9. In his redemption game, Matt Corral took everything he learned in last season’s six-interception showing against the Razorbacks and ran with it. Corral accumulated 381 yards on offense, rushed for two touchdowns, threw two touchdown passes and finished the day with no interceptions.
Corral’s physicality was truly on display in the Rebels 52-51 nail-biting win over Arkansas. On the second touchdown drive of the game when Coach Kiffin opted to go for two, Corral barreled into the endzone, through the extended leg of a Razorback defender and bodying another to tie the game 14-14. With the clock ticking at the end of the first half, Corral drove his team down the field and ran it in from seven out to put the Rebels up by a touchdown at the half.
Despite a parade of points by the Rebel offense, there is still some defensive work to be done. After Chance Campbell’s fumble recovery in the second quarter, the defense did not seem to have an answer for Arkansas. Running back Raheim Sanders put up 139 rushing yards on the Rebel defense, including a 42 yard run during the third quarter.
Quarterback K.J. Jefferson, who ran for three touchdowns, was sacked only once, a season low for the Rebel defense that wrapped up opposing quarterbacks 11 times in the previous four games.
For the Rebels to succeed against Tennessee’s newly high-functioning offense, they have to tackle well. Too many times, opponents have broken tackles and gained yards after encountering a Rebel defenseman. The Rebels need to be physical and dominate early, stopping the Tennessee run game before it gets a chance to roll. The Volunteers and Rebels are almost neck and neck in total rushing offense, with Ole Miss sitting in fifth in the NCAA at 259.6 offensive rushing yards per game, and Tennessee with 253.7 rushing yards per game, putting them two spots below the Rebels.
The Rebel defense will have their work cut out for them, but they know exactly how to handle the Vols. Kiffin noted the similarities between the Rebels and the Vols.
“The tempo aspect of it and how that’s managed and practiced. How receivers play positions and get the ball, all of that stuff is the same. We moved a little bit from where they’re at with different plays just like they have with us, but the base system, not necessarily the routes, but the base system of how it’s practiced, run and efficient during a game is the same, which is the same as what we just played last week.”
Catch the Rebels up on Rocky Top on Saturday, Oct. 16 as they continue to make a push for SEC West contention. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. CT on SEC Network.