Tennessee’s defense appeared to make a goal-line stand to seal the upset as time expired in the 2010 game, but the Vols were penalized for too many men on the field, clearing the path for Stevan Ridley’s game-winning touchdown in the 16-14 LSU victory.
“I mean it was an emotional roller coaster, you know one second we thought we lost the game and the next we’re coming off the field with a victory,” LSU wide receiver Rueben Randle said. “I think we grew from that situation, and hopefully that situation won’t occur again. I think we’re more defined in what we want to do, and I don’t think that’ll ever happen again.”
While top-ranked LSU (6-0, 3-0) seeks its second consecutive sweep of their Southeastern Conference’s East Division opponents, the Volunteers are still looking for their first benchmark victory of Derek Dooley’s 1 1/2 -season career as their coach.
It’s the game Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms has been waiting for, and not just to avenge the loss for the Vols (3-2, 0-2). Simms is making his first start in nearly a year, filling in for Tyler Bray, who broke the thumb on his throwing hand in a loss against Georgia last week.
“I did an interview with someone in the summer and they asked me who was the one team I would love to go against,” Simms said after practice this week. “I said LSU, and I got what I wished for. I’m just looking forward to it, looking forward to the experience. It’s a tough position for all of us, and we’ve just got to focus and win our first SEC game.”
If the rest of this season is any indication, Ruben may be right about the Tigers growing from last year’s 2-point win over the Vols. Dating back to last season, LSU has won seven straight games by a double-digit margin, just one such victory away from tying the school mark of eight set in 1936.
And the Tigers have been doing it with an almost perfectly balanced offense and a punishing defense, leaving few options for opponents.
Coach Les Miles has two options at quarterback: Jarrett Lee has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 947 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interceptions and the more mobile Jordan Jefferson, who sat out the first four games of the season after a preseason arrest.
The Tigers are averaging 183.3 yards passing and 183.5 yards rushing on the strengths of Randle, who caught four passes for 127 yards and a touchdown against Florida last week, and running back Spencer Ware, who ran for a career-high 109 yards and 2 scores against the Gators.
LSU’s defense has held opponents without a touchdown in 18 of 24 quarters this season and ranks fourth nationally in rushing defense in allowing 69.2 yards per game, fifth with 254 yards allowed per game and eight with an average 12.5 points given up per game. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has been a force in the secondary, helping lead the Tigers to a plus-11 turnover margin with his two interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
“I can tell you that the defense is ranked in the top 10 in virtually every statistical category. That speaks to the effort,” Miles said. “That defense comes to the field with the want to make an impression, they want to be ambitious and they want to be recognized. They play that way.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee appears to be in shambles. The Vols have gone without two of their top defensive players from last season with an injury to linebacker Herman Lathers and the dismissal of star safety Janzen Jackson. They’ve since lost Bray and top wide receiver Justin Hunter, the anchors of their explosive air game.
The Vols have picked up 327.2 of their 412 average yards by air, though mostly under Bray, who threw for 14 TDs through five games. They’ve gotten little help from the run game, which averages an SEC-worst 84.8 yards and lost a combined 29 yards in losses to Georgia and Florida.
Dooley has heard the “gloom and doom” talk about the state of his team and knows it’s going to take a strong mental effort from Tennessee to overcome the challenges of a thin roster.
“I hope they believe they can do it,” Dooley said. “Our guys have to go believe they can go fight anybody. This is Tennessee. I don’t care how many guys we lose. We are still Tennessee. We fought them good last year. I know this: If we don’t come believing we can win and playing to our capacity, then … they’re going to embarrass you.”
The game Saturday marks the first time LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis returns to Neyland Stadium, where he coached the Vols’ defense for 14 years until the firing of his boss, coach Phillip Fulmer.
“I can tell you that John Chavis is a tremendously loyal person and supporter and advocate of Tennessee,” Miles said. “Certainly he has maintained relationships back there and roots with them when they are not playing LSU. He will want to represent his past by being an excellent defensive coordinator against Tennessee this coming Saturday.”