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Tennessee Football Preview: Vols Look For Critical SEC Win Against Missouri in Columbia

Tennessee MIssouri
Tennessee vs Missouri. Photos via team websites.

The Opponent: The University of Missouri was founded in 1839, and was the first public university west of the Mississippi River. Missouri is the alma mater of acting greats such as Tom Berenger, Jon Hamm and Brad Pitt. Now think of some of the worst possible national sports media members. If they couldn’t get into Syracuse then they probably went to Missouri. Missouri has been playing football since 1890, and has been a member of the SEC since 2012. The Tigers are coached by Eli Drinkwitz, in his fourth season in CoMo. Drinkwitz is 24-21 overall, and 14-17 in the SEC. Drinkwitz got his start coaching at Springdale High School in Arkansas, learning under Gus Malzahn.

Are they any Good?: Yes, Missouri is good. That is the first time we have been able to say that under Eli Drinkwitz, but the Tigers are enjoying a breakout season in 2023. A win over Tennessee would give Missouri a decent chance to reach 10 regular season wins. The Tigers’ season so far has been fairly similar to Tennessee’s. Each team’s best win may be at Kentucky. Each team has lost on the road to a Top 5 team in Georgia and Alabama respectively. Missouri’s best win at home is probably Kansas State, whereas Tennessee’s is Texas A&M. While both have fairly balanced offenses, Missouri has grabbed headlines with its passing attack while Tennessee’s ground game garners most of the praise. This game will essentially determine who is the 2nd best team in the SEC East.

What will this tell us about Tennessee?: The consensus Over/Under win total for Tennessee was 9 entering the season. With a win on Saturday the Vols will surely be able to hit that number regardless of the Georgia game. That does not mean this game alone will define Tennessee’s season, but it could help distinguish the Vols as either a good team or a great team. The same can probably be said of Missouri. With some help from Lane Kiffin in Athens, this game could even set up a de facto SEC East title game next Saturday inside Neyland Stadium. I don’t think Tennessee needs to worry about that though. Missouri is enough of a challenge on their own. I expect this game to go a long way in solidifying the reputations of both Joe Milton and Tim Banks’ defense.

What does Vegas say?: This line opened at Mizzou -1.5, but now sits at Tennessee -1.5. It is essentially a pick ’em when you look at the Moneyline odds though. Both teams are 6-3 ATS this season. The Over/Under is set at 58.5.

Matchup to watch on Offense: Embrace the Joe Show. I wanted to emphasize Red Zone conversions, but I have written about those struggles too much this year. Simply put, Missouri has a decisive edge when it comes to converting Red Zone trips into touchdowns. Tennessee needs to change that to win this game. Otherwise, my focus is on Joe Milton. Milton has completed 75% of his passes the last three games.  He has protected the ball well, at least in terms of interceptions. He has gotten more involved in the run game as of late, which has added a nice dimension to Tennessee’s offense. Tennessee does not need Joe Milton to go out and win this game on his own. The Vols still have the best running game in the SEC, and I expect that group to have success on Saturday. At times though, Tennessee needs Joe Milton to be less of a game manager and more of a playmaker. This coaching staff has to trust Milton to make the plays and the reads necessary. Missouri’s secondary has given up plenty of 10-20 yard completions on the season. I fully expect the Tigers to commit extra personnel to stop Tennessee’s run game, which means opportunities will be there in the passing game. Tennessee has to trust that Milton is finally growing into this offense, and that he can make the right plays downfield. It is nice to see Dont’e Thornton finally coming into the offense. Tennessee needs as many options as possible, and ideally wants to throw away from Missouri cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine. Also don’t be surprised to see Tennessee’s tight ends more involved than usual. Again, the engine to this offense will always be the run game. The Vols are 12-3 in SEC games under Josh Heupel when they have more rushing attempts than passes. The opposite has produced a 1-5 record. The Vols don’t want, or need, Joe Milton to throw it 30+ times on Saturday. They need him to be effective when he does throw it though. They need to trust that the progress we’ve seen in the passing game is real. Texas A&M remains Josh Heupel’s only win at Tennessee when scoring less than 30 points. Assume the Vols need to get to 30 on Saturday, which will require a good game from Joe Milton.

More from RTI: St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Eli Hoff Previews Top 15 Matchup Between Tennessee And Missouri

Matchup to watch on Defense: Rediscover your pass rush. After a strong first half of the season, Tennessee has only recorded 2 sacks in its last 10 quarters. That fact has been pretty well documented as of late. Missouri has only allowed 16 sacks on the season, so the Vols have their work cut out for them. The Tigers average 284.9 yards passing and 2 touchdowns per game. It is easy to imagine Brady Cook hitting those numbers if given time to throw. Yes, star Missouri receiver Luther Burden is questionable, but I would be stunned if he did not play. The Tigers have two other really nice pass catchers in Theo Wease Jr and Mookie Cooper. Brady Cook is an elusive quarterback, and this offense gets the ball out of his hands quickly. Most eyes have been on Tyler Baron and James Pearce Jr when the opposing quarterback drops back to pass against Tennessee. The Vols need to do a better job getting an interior push though. The edge does not matter as much if Brady Cook can comfortably step up into the pocket to throw. It is a big game for Omari Thomas, Bryson Eason, and Omarr Norman-Lott for that reason. In Missouri’s seven wins Brady Cook has only thrown one interception. In its two losses Brady Cook has thrown four. Without pressure and turnovers, Tennessee will be forced into a shootout with the Tigers. That style of game would give Missouri a decisive edge at home.

Fun Fact: The University of Missouri is located in Columbia, Missouri. There are 29 different cities named Columbia in the United States, including one in Tennessee. This particular Columbia serves as the County Seat of Boone County, Missouri. The county was named after famed American frontiersman Daniel Boone. Before it was officially organized as a county, the entire area was simply known as Boonslick. Nearby salt springs and salt licks were frequently used by extended members of the Boone family. While Daniel Boone himself never lived in Boone County, he died approximately 100 miles east of the area in 1820. The city of Columbia was officially founded the very next year.

So What Happens?: Josh Heupel has outscored Missouri 128 to 48 the last two seasons. It is a remarkable discrepancy. No doubt Eli Drinkwitz didn’t appreciate the Vols airing it out late inside Neyland Stadium last season. The Tigers were a disaster on defense in 2021, but went into last year’s game with a statistically solid bunch. Missouri played six SEC games before traveling to Neyland Stadium last season. They only gave up 18.67 points per game in those contests. Tennessee then hung 66 on them. I am certainly not predicting another 60-burger, or anything close. It does make you wonder whether Josh Heupel and his staff have a real edge over Eli Drinkwitz. The Tigers had a very solid run defense last season, and Tennessee still rushed for over 7.0 yards per carry against them. Undoubtedly, Missouri will adjust in the way they defend Heupel’s offense this year. How does Heupel do in anticipating those adjustments, and countering them? On paper, this will be a very close game. Coaching adjustments will matter a lot. The reality is these are remarkably similar offenses strictly from a statistical standpoint. They rank 4th and 5th in the SEC in terms of scoring, and 4th and 5th in terms of yardage. Tennessee actually has aslight edge in both. The Vols are better on 3rd down, but Missouri is significantly better in the Red Zone. The latter fact is still a major concern for Tennessee. I do think Tennessee has a better overall defense though. According to data from Pro Football Focus, Tennessee ranks 28th nationally with a 69.8% stop rate. That basically means that 7 out of 10 opponent’s drives end in either a punt, turnover, or turnover on down. Opponents are scoring 1.52 points per drive against Tennessee this season. That number is down from 1.75 last season, and vastly improved from 2.42 in 2021. Missouri is ranked 89th nationally this season at a 58.1% stop rate. The Tigers are giving up 2.29 points per drive. Disruptive defensive plays are a major component of stop rate. We saw a ton of those against UConn last weekend, but the Vols need to get back to making those plays against SEC opponents. I predict Rodney Garner will have his unit ready on Saturday, and that will be a major difference in this game. The Vols will be the better team along the lines of scrimmage. Brady Cook will put up better numbers than Joe Milton, but Tennessee will have better overall balance on offense. It won’t exactly be a shoot out, but it will be close. Vols 34, Tigers 30

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