Mississippi's defense has played a significant role in the program's best start in 52 years but now must overcome a distraction involving one of its key players.
Ole Miss (6-0, 3-0 SEC) is allowing the second-fewest points per game in the FBS at 11.8 and held Texas A&M to less than half its average in a 35-20 road victory last Saturday. The Aggies, previously third in the nation with 47.8 points per game, scored 13 points after the Rebels had all but sealed the win on linebacker Keith Lewis' 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Cody Prewitt scored on a 75-yard interception return, and Ole Miss improved to 6-0 for the first time since their 10-0 campaign in 1962. The Rebels are tied for second nationally with 12 interceptions, returning three for TDs, and Senquez Golson is tied for second individually with five.
"Our defense - I couldn't be more proud of the staff and the kids and how they're playing," coach Hugh Freeze said.
That defense has taken some pressure off Tennessee native Bo Wallace, who has averaged 225.7 passing yards over the last three games after averaging 341.0 through the first three. His 13 completions, 19 attempts and 178 yards against Texas A&M were all season lows, but he did run for 50 yards and two touchdowns.
Ole Miss remains on track to reach the SEC championship game for the first time and make the inaugural College Football Playoff, but it's unclear if Nkemdiche will get to help the Rebels chase another victory before a pivotal two-game stretch in the SEC West.
A photo allegedly showing the starting defensive tackle holding a bong has been circulating on the internet. Freeze said the school is aware of the situation but wouldn't confirm if the nation's former No. 1 recruit was in the photo.
Freeze added that the program performs drug tests on "our whole team," but wouldn't say if Nkemdiche has failed any previous ones. The school's drug policy mandates a suspension only after a second offense, and a third offense means dismissal from the program.
"Our kids make social decisions all the time, just like my kids do, and I've made mistakes," Freeze said. "We are going to help them navigate life, but we're going to hold them accountable for actions that are not what we want representing our university, or program or themselves. I'm very confident that we deal with all of them in the same manner."
"The more games we win, the bigger the target gets for us and we just have to do a good job of focusing on the task and each team," said linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert's older brother.
Tennessee (3-3, 0-2) ranks next-to-last in the 14-team SEC with 28.0 points and 347.5 yards per game but was competitive in a 35-32 loss at then-No. 12 Georgia on Sept. 27. While they haven't wowed anyone offensively in their past two games, the Volunteers have held each of those opponents to less than 100 yards passing.
They couldn't use that to their advantage in a 10-9 loss to Florida on Oct. 4 but had more than enough to beat FCS opponent Chattanooga 45-10 last Saturday. Justin Worley matched a career high with three passing touchdowns and ran for two more.
Tennessee's defense, meanwhile, moved into the top 20 nationally in scoring defense (19.2 ppg) and total defense (316.3 ypg).
"(Facing Ole Miss) is definitely a big opportunity," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "Everyone's been talking about their defense, but we're going to let everybody know that Tennessee's defense is here and we're going to make a statement."
Ole Miss has lost 13 of 14 to Tennessee, including a 52-14 drubbing at Knoxville in the most recent meeting Nov. 13, 2010.