Tennessee football heads to Columbia on Saturday to face No. 14 Missouri (7-3, 3-2 SEC) in its final road game of the season.
Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
It’s been a highly successful season for Missouri. Last week’s loss ended its SEC East championship hopes. Do you expect any let down in this spot?
“Losing to Georgia and dropping out of contention for the East was a blow. Did anybody expect Mizzou to be contending for a spot in the SEC Championship game? No, but it sure seemed like the Tigers had a chance going into last week’s game. Coach Eli Drinkwitz said there would need to be a ‘refocusing’ of team goals after the loss. That said, this year’s team handled its first loss of the season well. After falling at home to LSU in similarly heartbreaking fashion, Missouri rebounded by going on the road and thumping a pretty good Kentucky bunch. Obviously, Tennessee is better than Kentucky, but there’s enough precedent to suggest that recovering from a loss won’t be too much of a hurdle.”
Where has Brady Cook improved most from last season to this season?
“For one, his health. He played the vast majority of last season with a torn labrum, which is something that’ll make throwing very painful and difficult for a quarterback, of course. Cook hyperextended his knee early in the season but has looked more and more comfortable as the week’s go by. Coming off the bye week against Georgia, Cook was his usual electric self in terms of scrambling ability.
He’s also improved some of his ability to make reads. Mizzou likes to stack routes in dagger and flood concepts, and Cook has flourished with some of those high-low reads. And while his two late interceptions tanked the Tigers’ chances of beating Georgia, he’s generally been good about minimizing turnovers.”
Besides Cook’s improvement, why has Missouri’s offense been so effective this season?
“There are two components to every offense: personnel and scheme. Both have been humming for Missouri. Wide receiver Luther Burden III is one of the best wideouts in college football and has an argument for being the best. Running back Cody Schrader took a massive leap for his final year and has become a workhorse who grinds through contact. The offensive line, despite some penalty issues, is blocking well — particularly the left side, with tackle Javon Foster and guard Xavier Delgado. Wide receiver Theo Wease has feasted against man coverage — he said this week that he views so-called 50-50 balls as 80-20 in his favor. The players have risen to the occasion.
And the scheme has suited them too. One of the first things that new offensive coordinator Kirby Moore did when arriving at Missouri in January was ask players what they wanted to see from the offense. He seems to have complete buy-in. There’s still plenty of zone run plays and off-tackle looks, but screen usage is way down and shot plays are there. Moore likes to hunt mismatches, especially for Burden, so that will be a factor too.”
What are the strengths and weaknesses of Missouri’s defense?
“Kris Abrams-Draine has been playing at an incredibly high level — he’s been one of the best cornerbacks in the country this year. His motor is impressive too, as he rarely sits out a snap. The defensive line, particularly edge rusher Darius Robinson, has settled in as the year’s gone. Robinson has sacks in each of his last five games and brings a lot of side to the edge as a former D-tackle.
The defense’s best strength, lately, has been creating third-and-longs for opponents. In those situations, defensive coordinator Blake Baker likes to deploy the “prowler” package he brought over from Miami, using six defensive backs to be creative with coverages and pressure. He’s got a couple safeties who come in to fill some niche roles in those situations.
The linebacker room hasn’t been as strong as many expected it to be. Starting middle linebacker Chad Bailey is out for the rest of the season, but he’s missed several games already, so Chuck Hicks filling in there is nothing new. Weak side linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper was one of the best in the SEC last year but struggling with some missed tackles and blitzes not hitting home. He’s looked better but has plenty to prove to the NFL eyes on him, especially in pass coverage.”
What is a key or multiple keys for Missouri against Tennessee?
“On defense, it’s stopping the run. Missouri’s single-gap defense requires everyone to hit the holes they’re supposed to — and make the tackle when the ball comes to them. Relying on safeties to come down and make those plays is risky business.
Offensively, it’s getting the pass game back to what it was during Mizzou’s particularly explosive stretch. That might mean establishing the run early to try and coax Tennessee into bringing an extra defender into the box and then trying to go over the top, but consistently getting bigger chunks of yardage through the air would be a big help.”
”I think it’ll be a close one. I’ll say Mizzou squeaks by.”
Missouri 34, Tennessee 31