BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
SPORTS EDITOR EMERITUS
I don't know if Tennessee can beat Mississippi State, but it stands to reason that the chances are probably better in winning in Starkville than they are at home to Alabama or on the road at South Carolina.
Thus, the next game for the Vols, which comes up a week from Saturday, is now probably the most important in the Derek Dooley era.
Why? Wasn't the season opener against North Carolina called the most important game of the Dooley era?
You bet, and at the time it was. The Vols won that one. But a stretch of four consecutive Southeastern Conference games against highly ranked opponents is now upon us. Most people feel that Dooley needs to win one of those.
It didn't happen at Georgia on Saturday, although there were lots of things that happened to make UT fans smile. Defense, however, was not one of those "happy" things.
Now the Vols made the trek to Starkville to play the Bulldogs, and the late-night start (9 p.m., ESPN2) makes it an even greater challenge, it would seem to me.
This is not the same Mississippi State school that used to be the cellar-dwellers among the SEC West. They are very capable, as evidenced by their No. 20 ranking this week in the Associated Press poll.
I hate to admit it, but to be totally honest I never really expected UT to beat Georgia Saturday. I was just hoping for a respectable showing. I never thought a decade ago that I would stoop so low as to just hope for a good effort. During those glory years, Tennessee was able to beat anybody, on any Saturday.
But that was before things began to deteriorate in Knoxville. Dooley is still looking for his first win against a quality SEC opponent, and Mississippi State now qualifies as such.
For Tennessee to score 44 points and lose is almost unheard of. In fact, it had never happened before Saturday night in Athens. But the Vols showed resilience, and they kept battling from behind and actually had a chance to get the game even, and maybe even win, before a couple of costly turnovers in the closing minutes by Tyler Bray ended that threat.
Actually, Bray had three turnovers -- two interceptions and a lost fumble -- in the waning minutes, but the last one was a tipped ball that Georgia made a nice play on. The other pick was made because the ball was thrown to the wrong side of the receiver, and the lost fumble came when Bray was trying to scramble out of a pass rush.
But Bray can't be held solely responsible for the shortcomings. His side of the ball, the offense, did quite well, and he made some plays. But the defense, well ...
First-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri has his work cut out for him. His new defensive scheme has been exploited by both Florida and Georgia for over 500 yds. of offense. They must play better at Starkville if this all-important game is to be won.
Allowing 44 points in the South Atlantic Conference is not that uncommon as that score-crazy league often has some wild finishes. But you know its got to grate on Coach Frankie DeBusk's nerves to see his team give up 39 points to winless Brevard last Saturday.
In all fairness to the Pioneers, the defense was on the field way too much, but that was not altogether a bad thing when you consider what Tusculum was doing Saturday. The offense had the ball about half as much for the game as did Brevard on Saturday (39:07 to 20:53), but part of that reason was the special teams for the Pioneers spent most of the first quarter returning kicks. Plus, Brevard can keep the clock moving with their ground-oriented offense.
Xzanvion Smith had a day. He returned two kickoffs for scores, caught another two touchdown passes, and that was all in the first half. His back-to-back kickoff returns covered 79 and 83 yds. respectively. He also had six pass receptions on the day for 149 yds., giving him a school-record 311 all-purpose yards.
His efforts earned him SAC special teams player of the week, as well as some national honors.
The Pioneers face a tough foe this week as they again play at home in an afternoon contest (1:30). UNC Pembroke, who beat Catawba 27-20 last Saturday, pays a visit, and Catawba was a 14-6 winner over the Pioneers two weeks ago.