Preview: Tennessee vs. Missouri

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    Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

    Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

    Tennessee (7-3, 3-3 SEC) vs. Missouri (3-7, 1-5 SEC) 

    Saturday, 3:30 pm ET

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

    TV: CBS

    Series Record: Missouri leads 3-1

     Setting the table

    Tennessee’s focus will be entirely on Missouri, but the fan base will have split attention on Saturday. The Vols need to take care of business against the Tigers, and then Vanderbilt next week, but they also need some help from LSU against Florida on Saturday. That game, which begins at 1 pm ET, will be wrapping up at some point around halftime of the UT-Mizzou game. There will be a lot of phone scrolling and scoreboard checking from the fans around that time.

    But that game means nothing if UT doesn’t get a Senior Day win in Neyland. The Vols will be honoring 11 players, according to Butch Jones, and that will include the likes of Joshua Dobbs, Cam Sutton and others who have been instrumental in getting UT headed back in the right direction. There’s still work to be done for that group, however. This season had championship expectations, and while some of it is out of UT’s hands at this point, the Vols must do their part to make sure that it’s not a loss to the Tigers or Commodores that prevents them from winning the East and going to Atlanta.

     Who has the edge

    When Tennessee throws…

    Nothing has gone too well for Missouri on defense this season. The Tigers are last in total defense in the SEC and 12th overall in the conference in passing defense. If there is any kind of a strength, however, it might the cornerback position, particularly senior Aarion Penton. And while the defensive front has been hit hard by personnel issues, end Charles Harris still has upside that has him projected in the first round of some NFL mock drafts. Tennessee’s passing offense has been sporadic this year, but Dobbs played one of the better games of the season last week against Kentucky. If he can replicate that performance, it should be a good day through the air. Regardless, Mizzou hasn’t done enough this year in pass defense to truly scare the Vols. Edge: Tennessee 

    When Tennessee runs…

    Missouri has been even worse in rush defense, coming in 13th in the SEC in that category. The Tigers are missing several key pieces in this area, such as linebacker Michael Scherer, and it’s shown this year. The Vols’ updated running back duo of John Kelly and Alvin Kamara looked extremely potent against Kentucky last week, and Missouri doesn’t have the personnel to slow the Vols unless Tennessee self-inflicts some wounds. The offensive line is a little banged up, but UT has built enough depth to be ok there on a week like this. Three 100-yard rushers isn’t completely out of the question for the Vols when you factor in Dobbs on the ground, but regardless, it’s easy to envision Tennessee going for 250+ rushing on the day. Edge: Tennessee 

    When Missouri throws…

    Drew Lock got thrown into the fire as a freshman last year and had plenty of notable struggles. Under new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, he’s a new player this year – one that Butch Jones said has NFL talent. And while he’s still a bit raw in some areas, he does have a big arm and has improved his decision-making this year. The stats were a bit padded by blowout wins against Delaware State and Eastern Michigan, but the Tigers are second in the league in passing offense with almost 300 yards per game through the air. The receivers, in particular J’Mon Moore (743 yards), have been better than many expected. Missouri’s offense, which is based on run-pass options, quick reads and getting the ball out quickly, should mitigate UT’s strength in the pass rush. It’s fair to expect the Tigers to move the ball with some regularity against UT’s secondary, which could be without Todd Kelly Jr. on Saturday. Cam Sutton, Malik Foreman and Micah Abernathy, all players who have battled injuries in recent weeks, will need to play well. Edge: Slightly to Missouri 

    When Missouri runs…

    After struggling to find consistency on the ground last season and early in 2016, freshman Damarea Crockett (837 yards, 9 TDs) has emerged as a rising star at running back. He has four 100+ yard performances this season, including a couple against Vanderbilt and Florida – both respectable defenses. Tennessee’s run defense has been anything but respectable recently. The Vols have given up over 350 yards on the ground in three of their last four games against FBS competition. That’s historically bad. While Mizzou might not have the overall firepower on the ground that some other recent opponents did, it’s tough to like UT’s run defense against anybody at this point. Edge: Missouri

    On special teams…

    The return game is a bit of a mystery for Tennessee. The Vols will have Alvin Kamara and Cam Sutton – two of the best returners in the league – at their disposal on Saturday. But will Jones be willing to use them in that capacity after losing them both to injuries earlier in the season? Tough to say. Missouri, meanwhile, has found some success with freshman punt returner Johnathon Johnson, who is second in the league with a 15.2-yard average and has a return for a touchdown as well. UT, however, has a huge edge in the kicking game. Mizzou has no reliable option at kicker, which means any fourth down in scoring territory is going to be an adventure for the Tigers. Edge: Tennessee 

     Best-case scenario for UT 

    The Vols take care of business in Knoxville and get some help from former assistant coach Ed Orgeron and LSU down in Baton Rouge. That sets UT up with a a trip to Nashville next week with a chance to claim the SEC East.

     Worst-case scenario for UT

    Regardless of the outcome of Florida-LSU, a loss for Tennessee would be inexcusable. This season is teetering on the edge of success and failure, and a loss to the Tigers would quickly tip the scales in the wrong way for UT.

     How we think it’ll play out

    We’re expecting a lot of points, that’s for sure. It’s tough to have a lot of confidence in either defense in this game. A lot like last week, it could come down to which team is able to convert in the red zone. We think UT’s rushing attack can and should overwhelm a Missouri defense that hasn’t lived up to expectations. The Tigers should score plenty of points of their own, but the expectation is that UT will come out on top in a relatively high-scoring game.