A second straight close win kept Tennessee in control of the SEC East Division. Now the Vols look to keep rolling Saturday when they take on surging Alabama.
A week after hanging on to end Georgia’s 17-game home winning streak with a 19-14 victory, the No. 11 Vols (5-1, 3-1) rallied for a 21-17 win over Mississippi on Saturday night. Freshman Erik Ainge shook off a costly interception to hit Bret Smith with the winning touchdown with 6:58 to play as Tennessee remained tied with Georgia atop the SEC East.
Tennessee has climbed six spots in the AP Top 25 with the wins over Georgia and Ole Miss, victories that followed a 34-10 home rout at the hands of then-No. 8 Auburn on Oct. 2.
“As far as the Auburn game goes, we kind of beat ourselves as a team. … I think as a defense we played OK. There’s always room to improve,” Tennessee defensive end Parys Haralson said. “Since the Auburn game we have been working harder to improve. It’s just something we’ve been working on. It’s just paying off.”
The hard work has left Tennessee in position to win the conference title. The Vols also have a much more manageable schedule, with no ranked opponents remaining in their final five games.
Against Ole Miss, Ainge rebounded from a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter by leading Tennessee on a nine-play, 83-yard drive culminating in a 30-yard TD pass to a diving Smith that provided the final margin.
“It’s important to win games when you don’t always play your best,” coach Phillip Fulmer said. “We jumped out, then got complacent, but the last couple of drives showed our character.”
Gerald Riggs Jr. ran for 118 yards and a touchdown in his first start for the Vols.
While Tennessee doesn’t have any teams that are currently ranked left on its schedule, the Vols will be facing an Alabama squad that took a big step toward making the Top 25 last week.
Kenneth Darby rushed for 197 yards and scored two touchdowns, one on a run and one on a pass, as Alabama (5-2, 2-2) beat No. 24 Southern Mississippi 27-3 for its first win against a ranked opponent in nearly two years.
“It’s a great win for us to beat a ranked opponent,” Darby said. “This will send a signal out to the rest of the teams on our schedule that we’re ready.”
The impressive win over Southern Miss followed a 45-17 rout at Kentucky on Oct. 9, giving the Tide their second win in a row and putting consecutive losses to Arkansas and South Carolina further behind them.
Alabama coach Mike Shula, however, saw plenty of room for improvement in the victory over Southern Miss. The Tide drew Shula’s ire with seven penalties for 65 yards.
“It just felt like we beat ourselves there with a lot of penalties,” said Shula, whose team needs one more win to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2001. “We’ve got to do a better job there.”
Starting with the Tennessee game, Alabama plays three of its last four contests against ranked SEC opponents.
Tennessee is expected to be without starting safety Brandon Johnson on Saturday after the junior was suspended indefinitely for firing a gun into the air near campus. Johnson had two interceptions against Ole Miss.
Alabama leads the series with Tennessee 43-36-7, and is 20-18-1 in Knoxville. The Vols, though, are 9-2 against the Tide under Fulmer.