Still searching for consistency on offense, the Tennessee Volunteers (2-4) head into a Southeastern Conference matchup against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (2-4) at Neyland Stadium Saturday night.
The Vols are coming off a loss to No. 11 Georgia (5-1).
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs handed the No. 21 Vanderbilt Commodores (5-1) their first loss of the year in a 17-14 victory in Starksville, Miss.
Despite the struggles the Vols have had this season, head coach Phillip Fulmer remains optimistic.
“It goes without saying that no one is happy at all with the season to this point," Fulmer said during Tuesday's media day. "As a head coach, at different times, there have been a few (seasons) like this one where you’d have to persevere and overcome.
"We’ve been able to do that in the past and certainly expect to do that again.”
Quarterback Nick Stephens has given the Vols' offense a bit of a spark and has earned his third start of the year. Stephens has used his strong arm to attack defenses downfield, and it has really paid off.
In his two starts, Stephens has thrown three touchdowns and zero interceptions. His accurate deep throws have been a welcoming sight after former starter Jonathon Crompton struggled to complete passes.
Fulmer has taken note of the Vols new weapon.
“Denarius Moore has made a couple of really nice plays, and Nick (Stephens) has a knack for finding those guys and getting the ball to them with accurate throws," Fulmer said.
"We’ll continue to work toward those kinds of plays.”
While the passing game has improved with Stephens behind center, the running backs have disappeared from Tennessee’s offensive attack. The Vols rushed for only one yard against the Georgia Bulldogs last week.
Mississippi State’s pass defense is among the best in the conference, however its rushing defense ranks second-to-last.
Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty must take advantage of MSU’s troubles in the trenches to loosen up the secondary. If Mississippi State is forced to put eight guys in the box to slow down the Vols on the ground, Vol fans should expect to see Stephens launch another deep completion into the checkerboard.
"Early in the season, we were a very good running football team," Fulmer said. "What has happened to that is people are daring us to run the ball against numbers that are not in our favor."
Defensively, the Vols should continue to dominate. Quarterbacks Tyson Lee and Wesley Carroll have shared the snaps for the Bulldogs this year, but neither has found much success. In the SEC, Mississippi State ranks ninth in total offense.
The Vols have to establish the running game against an inferior defense. This has proven to be a problem all year, but running the football is imperative to winning football games in the SEC, especially when the leaves start changing.
The Bulldogs have yet to win a road game, while the Vols haven’t defeated an SEC team all year.
If the Vols find a way to win, Fulmer knows it won't come easy.
"Last year they might have been the most physical team that we played, and we’re expecting the same kind of football game this year," he said.
Kick-off is set for 7 p.m. EST.