Pick: This has been an incredibly tough one for me – almost to the level of agony that I had over my Florida pick earlier this year.
Let me walk you through my dilemma as a picker.
I believe in a lot of aspects of the Dave Bartoo school of thinking: Talent, coaching and home-field advantage are three of the biggest deciders when picking a game. Tennessee has more talent on its roster and it’s really not even that close. The Vols are obviously playing at home and coaching is somewhat of a push, though you can give Missouri the edge there if you want given Gary Pinkel’s experience and resume.
So that formula favors the Vols, and when you throw in how well Tennessee has played over the past two full games and for about two and a half quarters against Alabama before that, there’s a case that the Vols could roll in this one.
But as much as I try to plug formulas and theories into my pick, they just don’t work against Missouri.
The Tigers, though not incredibly impressive in the eye test, just find ways to win – especially on the road. They haven’t lost a true road game in nearly two calendar years. I can’t get that fact out of my head as I try to make my pick. And though Tennessee has more raw talent on its roster, Missouri is by far the more experienced team. The Tigers, which are in control of their own destiny in the SEC East, have more to play for as well.
That more experienced Missouri team will be facing a UT team that has communication issues on both sides of the ball as the Vols will have to adjust to life without inside linebacker A.J. Johnson and safety Brian Randolph (for the first half) – the two most important players in terms of setting the defense. The offense will likely have to get set without veteran Mack Crowder (ankle, knee) in the lineup as well. The Vols have talented players to replace all those guys, but a young lineup gets even younger when they do.
I’m going to predict that all of this balances each other out and it’ll be a tight football game in the fourth quarter. But I have to pick a winner, don’t I?
Tennessee it is. I will admit to not having a ton of confidence in it – I truly don’t know how this one will turn out and the Vols punished me for my confidence in them when I picked them to beat Florida earlier this year.
I was just very impressed with the product I saw on the field last week against Kentucky – a team Missouri only beat by 10. If the Vols stop the run with some effectiveness, making Maty Mauk drop back and throw it and don’t let Mizzou’s defensive ends impact the game too much, I think they have a fantastic chance to get win No. 6. It won’t be easy, though, and if Missouri wins, look for the guy in the press box banging his head on the table saying, “I knew I should’ve…” Pick: Tennessee 31-30
MVP: Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs
One of the cheesiest Butchism phrases is that the football “holds all of our dreams, goals and aspirations.” Cheesy or not, holding onto that football against Missouri will be the key. Look at last year at Missouri. Dobbs had 285 yards of total offense, but turned the ball over three times and the Vols weren’t competitive. Dobbs has done a fantastic job so far of protecting the football, avoiding sacks and keeping the Vols moving in the right direction. That will be as critical as ever this week against an opportunistic Missouri team that thrives on creating big plays. I’ll say Dobbs makes one or two mistakes, but does enough – I’ll say 300 yards of total offense and three total touchdowns – to get the Vols the win.
Pick: In a week that featured way more news about off-the-field incidents than should ever be allowed, the Vols actually do have a football game to play tonight…a big one. Tennessee is looking to secure their first bowl bid since the 2010 season, and they’ll have to go through SEC East leader, Missouri, if they want to secure it in front of a Neyland Stadium crowd.
Missouri is a strange team. Quarterback Maty Mauk looked like an All-American candidate at times last season, but in 2014 he has been near-abysmal against SEC defenses. In six SEC games Mauk has thrown only five touchdowns (four coming against Vanderbilt and Kentucky), while tossing six interceptions (five combined against Georgia and Florida). His best game against an SEC opponent came last week in a 252 yard, one touchdown performance against Texas A&M; a game in which the Aggies never looked like they knew what Missouri was trying to do offensively. But Missouri’s plan is simple: run the football early and often. If the Vol defense can limit Missouri’s ability to run the football consistently, Mauk hasn’t shown the ability to consistently make the necessary throws to beat good defenses through the air. They are limited at receiver and their offensive line struggles, at times, against good defensive ends. If Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett can pressure Mauk in obvious passing situations, the Vols could be in for a big night. Jakob Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin will need to have their best games of the season to stop Missouri’s attack, and I think they’ll be up to the challenge.
Offensively, Tennessee just needs to keep doing what they’ve been doing and things should be fine. Missouri is a talented defense, led by standout defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, but with all that Tennessee does with pre-snap motion, play action fakes and rollouts, they should be able to limit what those two are able to do from a pass-rush standpoint. If they can protect the pocket or get Dobbs moving away from pressure on designed plays, then look for the Vols to move the ball with some consistency against this defense. Missouri hasn’t faced a dual threat quarterback this year (Dobbs put up 285 yards of total offense against the Tigers last year), and they’ve struggled to contain the better rushing teams on their schedule. This bodes very well for Tennessee’s ability to run the football with Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Von Pearson…etc. and then set up some play action shots down the field for big plays. I also wouldn’t be stunned if the Vols had something special dialed up for Missouri this week…maybe a new formation, route combination or a special play that we haven’t seen yet this season.
Losing A.J. Johnson for the game will hurt this team at times, and losing Brian Randolph for the first half only compounds that problem. But this team knows how to win now. They are playing at home, in front of a big crowd, on Senior Night for the chance to send this program bowling for the fist time in four seasons. Expect the defense to struggle some in the first half, but expect the crowd to keep them motivated and the offense to make enough big plays to limit the damage until the defense can settle down. Pick: Orange and White 38-24
MVP: Tennessee Quarterback Josh Dobbs
It’s going to be hard for me to pick anybody other than Dobbs for the remainder os the season – and quite possibly the remainder of his career at Tennessee. Simply put, Dobbs makes this team ‘go’ on the offensive side of the football. Missouri has two very talented defensive ends who will likely pressure Dobbs in this game and probably sack him a time or two, but I do not see this Tiger defense having the ability to put the clamps on him for four quarters. He had 285 total yards against a better Missouri defense in this game last year as a true freshman; now that he’s a year wiser, a year stronger and playing with a lot of confidence with even more talent around him, I expect him to put on (another) show tonight. I’ll take four total touchdowns and somewhere in the 350-400 total yard category for AstroDobbs in this game.
This is a really, really weird game to pick. The Tigers are less talented than the teams Tennessee has lost to this year and they aren’t dominant on either side of the ball. Georgia boasted one of the nation’s best running games and top-10 talent. Florida’s defense has proven to be one of the nation’s best. We all know how good No. 1 Alabama is. Oklahoma had a top-20 offense and the weapons to expose Tennessee’s young line and immobile quarterback. Ole Miss brought perhaps the nation’s best defense to the field when the Vols traveled to Oxford.
Conversely, Missouri hasn’t been fantastic on either side of the ball. Technically they have a top-25 defense, but those numbers are inflated thanks to an absolutely abysmal non conference schedule. Don’t get me wrong, Missouri is much better defensively than the teams the Vols have bested this season, but they’re also much worse on the offensive side of the ball (107th nationally).
What does that mean? It means Tennessee, the more talented team, is rightfully favored at home.
I’m not worried about the Vols blocking out the distractions the week held when they step on the football field. Maybe I should be, but I think Butch Jones and the Vols will find a sanctuary for all of the week’s negative news when the they run through the T. I am, however, concerned that the Vols won’t get aligned correctly on defense, especially in the first half. Not giving up too many big plays in the first half, especially against Missouri’s dangerous running backs, will be vital to a Vol win.
This is tricky. Missouri has found a way to win a ton of road games when they haven’t played particularly well. The Vols can’t beat themselves, but if they play a clean game, Missouri’s nine-game road winning streak will be in jeopardy. This game comes down to one thing for me: Until someone proves they can stop Tennessee’s offense with Joshua Dobbs at the helm, I’m picking the Vols. Pick: Volunteers 31-24
MVP: Vol Running Back Jalen Hurd
Missouri is only giving up 3.36 yards per carry this year, but they’ve yet to face a true mobile quarterback. We’ll see how stout their run defense is when they have to account for an extra ball carrier in the backfield. Hurd has been a different animal since Dobbs took the reins. He’s operating in more space and absolutely punishing defenders. The Vols should get the ball to Hurd on the edge numerous times tonight in an attempt to run away from Missouri’s talent defensive linemen. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 yards of total offense, perhaps more, for Hurd against the Tigers wouldn’t surprise me. If Hurd scores a couple of touchdowns, the Vols win this one.