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Preview: Tennessee vs. No. 19 Missouri

Joshua Dobbs-1-5Tennessee (5-5) vs. Missouri (8-2)

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET

Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.


Series Record: Missouri leads 2-0


 Setting the table

It’s been a wild week for Tennessee football. Coming off a complete victory over Kentucky, off-the-field news has dominated the headlines in Knoxville. Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson, a team captain and the unquestioned leader of the defense, along with sophomore cornerback Michael Williams, have been suspended indefinitely in the midst of a legal investigation. No charges have been filed against either, but neither is expected to play against Missouri. Junior safety Brian Randolph will sit the first half as well after being ejected for targeting in the second half against Kentucky. Center Mack Crowder is doubtful after injuring his knee and ankle against Kentucky. So while it’ll be Senior Day for 15 seniors on the roster, it’ll also be step-up day for several other UT players. Missouri has used a strong defense, special teams and an opportunistic mindset to find itself on top of the SEC East and in the driver’s seat for a trip to the SEC Championship Game. The Vols need one more win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Both teams will have a lot on the line.

 Who has the edge?

When Tennessee throws…

In large part thanks to the help from the running game and the mobility of quarterback Joshua Dobbs that has extended plays, Tennessee has found fairly consistent success throwing the ball since Dobbs took over at quarterback. The Vols have averaged about 250 yards passing per game and are coming off back-to-back weeks where they’ve averaged just a touch under 300 yards per game. Mizzou’s pass defense will test them. The Tigers are seventh in the SEC, giving up just 209 yards per game through the air. And it may be the pass rush that disrupts Tennessee’s timing the most. Dobbs has been sacked just twice in the last three weeks, but Missouri’s DE tandem of Markus Golden and Shane Ray is almost unblockable on long, drop-back pass plays. If UT is to have success throwing, Dobbs will need to get rid of the ball quickly and move around – things he’s done well so far. Edge: Even

When Tennessee runs…

A ground game that was all but dormant in the middle portion of the season has come alive with Dobbs at the helm and Jalen Hurd-1-2Jalen Hurd getting healthier and more assertive. Tennessee’s averaged 246.3 yards per game on the ground since Dobbs has taken over. It’s not just the dual-threat quarterback taking off himself, but the attention that the defense has to pay to him as well, leaving less work to do for the offensive line and running backs in some situations. Missouri, again, is talented on defense and will be a stiff test. Opponents are only averaging 130.9 yards per game on the ground against the Tigers. Most SEC opponents have struggled to get too far above 100 yards, though Georgia was able to top 200, so it can be done. Expect the Vols to fall somewhere in between those numbers and to have a moderately successful day on the ground. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee

When Missouri runs…

The Tigers have a two-headed attack with Russell Hansbrough, who is coming off a 199-yard performance against Texas A&M, and the electric Marcus Murphy both being very dangerous options in the backfield. The run game has carried Missouri over the past two weeks as the Tigers have averaged 289.5 yards per game against Kentucky and A&M. Tennessee’s rushing defense, which has been respectable this year, won’t allow those numbers to be put up. But without A.J. Johnson in the middle, it’s difficult to say if the Vols will be able to consistently stop the run. And don’t forget about quarterback Maty Mauk, who hasn’t put up huge numbers this season on the ground, but did run for over 100 against the Vols last year. This will be a good test for UT’s defense. Edge: Missouri

When Missouri passes…

He’s had his moments, but all-in-all, it’s been a season to forget for Mauk, who some pegged as a second or third-team All-SEC candidate in the preseason. He hasn’t been consistently accurate all season, completing just a touch over 50 percent of his passes and throwing 10 interceptions in the process. But the playmaking ability is still there and if the Vols don’t keep their discipline on defense, he’ll get outside the pocket and make them pay. The key for Tennessee is keeping contain and making him stay in the pocket and throw the ball downfield. Receiver Bud Sasser is talented, so look for Cam Sutton to match up with him as often as possible. But if the Vols keep him under wraps and don’t let Mauk run around and extend too many plays, they’ll have a chance to win this matchup, even without Randolph in the first half. Edge: Tennessee

On special teams…

Murphy is very dangerous in the return game. He has three total touchdowns – two on kick returns and one on a punt return – this season, and that’s no fluke. He’s been doing it his whole career. The Tigers are second in the SEC in kickoff return average and fourth in punt return average. On the other side, Tennessee’s been really good in coverage, leading the SEC in opponent’s punt return average and coming in third in opponent’s kickoff return average. The Vols have a slight edge in field-goal average and punt average. On paper, it’s very even overall, but Murphy’s presence and the threat of him taking one the distance on any return gives Mizzou the slightest of advantages. Edge: Slightly to Missouri

 What Missouri is thinking

No respect. This is par for the course since we’ve been in the SEC. We’ve been taking care of business for four straight weeks, are in the driver’s seat in the East and now we’re going to face a team we beat by 28 last year that is missing several key pieces and we’re the underdog? That will prove to be ridiculous after this one. We have more experience, depth and we have a lot more to play for. We’re going to be able to run with ease with A.J. Johnson out and Dobbs hasn’t seen a defense like ours that’s been able to prepare for him. That offensive line still isn’t good and we’ll expose it with out defensive ends. We’ll win the turnover margin as we regularly do, we’ll disrupt that offense with our defensive line, run the ball, control the clock and do what we do – take care of business on the road.

 What Tennessee is thinking

We’re playing the best football we have in several years. We dismantled a Kentucky team last weekend that hung with Missouri for four quarters, so we know we have a good shot in this one. Missouri’s defense is good, but we feel that we can move the ball on anybody. We proved that against Alabama. And that Missouri offense doesn’t scare us. Mauk will make bad decisions and turn it over and we can overload the line of scrimmage to make up for any deficiencies in our running defense without A.J. out there. Discipline and communication will be key for us. Missouri thrives on other team’s mistakes and if you watch the Mizzou-Florida game, you’ll see that. But our recipe is more like what Georgia did to them in Columbia. We’ll run it right at them, hit some short passes and stay in front of the chains. Their offense can’t put up a ton of points on us, so let’s get to at least 28-31 points and we like our chances to get bowl eligible.

 What RTI is thinking

This is a tough one. Missouri is clearly the more experienced team, the Tigers have more on the line, the Vols have some serious questions to answer without A.J. Johnson and others on the field and Mizzou has been money on the road in the SEC. It’s been almost two calendar years since the Tigers have lost a true road game. All that makes it tough to pick against the Tigers, but we can’t ignore how well Tennessee has been playing coming into this game either. Perhaps the Vols keep rolling and show why they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league and a team to watch in 2015 and beyond. But Missouri knows how to win – there’s no denying that. We’re thinking it will likely be a fourth-quarter game that comes down to who protects the ball better and makes the big plays. It could go either way and there may be a split prediction within our staff of who wins.

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