published Saturday, October 15th, 2011

No. 1 mission: UT excited to play LSU

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    Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker (84) reacts as members of the LSU football team celebrate their comeback win last year in Baton Rouge, La.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee defensive back Prentiss Waggner went to high school less than 40 miles from LSU's campus in Baton Rouge.

Derek Dooley, the Volunteers' second-year head coach, was an assistant coach for the Tigers for five years.

Given their respective past proximities with the LSU football program, the two probably have the most credibility to speak about what they see in the Tigers. But for Dooley, Waggner and the rest of the Vols, what's jumped out more than anything this week is the little number preceding the school name.

"When I look at LSU on film, I see a disciplined team," Waggner said this week. "I see a hard-nosed, sound team and a very physical team on offense, defense and special teams. I would say that's what a No. 1 team should look like."

The top-ranked Tigers visit Knoxville today as a clear favorite against a UT team that will start backup Matt Simms at quarterback in place of the injured Tyler Bray. With a neutral-site win over ninth-ranked Oregon and a road win at No. 13 West Virginia -- two teams that could very well win their respective conferences -- LSU rolls in with what appears to be its best team since winning the 2007 national title.

To Dooley, who was the recruiting coordinator and coached tight ends, running backs and special teams at LSU under Nick Saban, the Tigers are simply the same old Tigers.

"I think since '03, LSU's looked the same every year when you turn on the film," he said. "Just incredible talent across the board; the defensive speed and physicality is as good as anybody in the country. The playmakers on offense are as good as anybody in the country.

"I've said that this looks like one of the best offenses that they've had, and when you combine an offense like this with the defense that they have, what you get is the team that's ranked No. 1 in the country."

The Vols are well aware of LSU's ranking, and though they face a physical, talented team each week in Southeastern Conference play, it's a little more special with the nation's top team.

"I think it's just the mindset," defensive lineman Malik Jackson said. "I think if it's the No. 2 or No. 3 team, then nobody would really care, but it's the No. 1 team in the nation. We actually have a chance to do big things and kind of make a name for ourselves with this game. I think LSU knows that we're going to go out there [with] nothing to lose and play hard."

UT played more than hard the last time it faced a top-ranked team. The Vols lost at No. 1 Alabama in 2009 when the Crimson Tide blocked a game-winning field-goal try as time expired. The last time a No. 1 team visited Knoxville, defending national champion Miami cruised in a 26-3 win in 2002.

The Vols have two wins in their long history against top-ranked teams: 14-13 over LSU in 1959 and 38-20 over Auburn in 1985, both in Knoxville.

"It makes me excited," said UT defensive end Jacques Smith from Ooltewah. "It's like David and Goliath, if that's what you want to call it. They're a great team, and it so happens that they're No. 1. We're still looking for our first SEC win, so what better [time] than it to happen.

"We definitely had those guys where we wanted them at the end of the game [last year]. We just didn't make it happen. Hopefully it can happen this year. We're at home, and that's just something that we know it gives us even more confidence."

The Tigers were ranked 12th when Tennessee nearly upset them in Baton Rouge last season. UT was a heavy underdog in that game and was doubled in total yardage, but the Vols were able to run the ball enough to slow the game down, and the defense intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble.

If the short-handed Vols are to keep it close today, it'll require a similar formula. But UT is last in the SEC in both rushing yards and turnovers. The Vols have run for minus-29 yards in SEC losses to Florida and Georgia and have forced just five turnovers. LSU sophomore defensive back Tyrann Mathieu alone has had his hand in nine takeaways (two interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries).

Last season's close game, though, does give the Vols some confidence.

"We know we can play with them," strong safety Brent Brewer said. "We've just got to be physical. Everybody is going to be pumped; everybody's going to be excited to play."

Said left guard Alex Bullard: "Some teams have more talent than others, but any team can beat any team on any given day in college football. Yes, they're the No. 1 team coming here. That just means we have to minimize our mistakes. We just have to worry about us. If we play to the way we're capable of playing, then everything will take care of itself."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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