Tennessee football travels to Columbia looking for its first top 25 win of the season against No. 14 Missouri on Saturday afternoon. The Vols are one-point favorites in the SEC East divisional showdown according to ESPN Bet.
Each week, the RTI team will provide game predictions for Tennessee’s weekly matchup.
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It feels like almost every SEC game we’ve previewed in the last month has had the theme of “it’s going to be low-scoring, have to win at the line of scrimmage, have to run the football, have to get after the quarterback,” and while all those things are still incredibly significant in Tennessee’s upcoming matchup at Missouri, this is a different type of game.
Missouri is going to move the ball on Tennessee through the air, pure and simple. Especially if Luther Burden III plays. The Vols’ secondary is better than it was last year but has taken a hit with the Kamal Hadden injury. The Vols’ offense is going to have to score points to keep up. I’m not saying this will be 2022 Tennessee-Alabama type of high scoring, but the Vols are going to have to score 30.
A month ago, I would have said that was a tall task. But now? Joe Milton is playing the best football of his career and the running game is still executing on a high level. Thanks to Milton’s improvements not only with his pocket presence and accuracy through the air, his damage on the ground has helped Tennessee significantly.
There’s a whole lot to talk about with this matchup. In my opinion, it’s the most intriguing of the season to date, and I’m pumped to watch a great football game on 3:30 ET in Columbia.
Ultimately, I look at which offense can be more balanced, and that’s Tennessee’s. I look at which pass rush has a better chance of potentially changing the game, and that’s Tennessee’s. I look at which coach I trust more. That’s. Tennessee’s.
The Vols have a better roster and have shown they can win in multiple ways whereas Missouri is limited in how they can win games.
Tennessee wins a road thriller at Josh Heupel’s old stomping grounds.
Prediction: Tennessee 35, Missouri 31
Man, this one is hard to wrap my head around in terms of a winner.
Here’s why I think Tennessee can win: The improved play of Joe Milton through the last three weeks or so has changed the majority of my opinion on this Tennessee offense. We knew that the Vols had the capability to run the ball with their running backs but the added downfield passing game plus the mobility of Joe Milton on the ground has really opened things up a good bit. Dont’e Thornton has also found himself more productive in the pass game over the last couple of weeks and could be a difference-maker on the outside for Joe Milton’s unit. If Luther Burden does not play for Missouri, the secondary will have an added advantage against Brady Cook’s passing game but I still expect Missouri to be able to throw the ball. Enter, Tennessee pass rush. While it hasn’t been the smoothest run over the last few weeks, Tennessee has the ability to get after the quarterback through the play of the front seven. In the same way that the Vols’ rush made Max Johnson and Spencer Rattler uncomfortable, I think the Vols have the ability to do the same to Cook when playing their best.
Here’s why I think Missouri can win: For starters, home-field advantage. Yes, Tennessee won on the road against Kentucky in a tough night game, but the Vols still collapsed against Alabama and struggled mightily against Florida earlier in the season. Missouri has lost one game at home already this season, though. Other than that it’s the Tigers’ passing game that should concern Tennessee fans. With Luther Burden, it’s an elite attack. Without Burden, it’s still really strong. Cook is a talented passer that has the ability to take over the Kamal Hadden-less Tennessee secondary. I also look at Missouri’s strong running game with Cody Shrader. Similiar to Tennessee, Missouri has the ability to grind out deflating runs throughout a drive.
There’s still more to say about both teams, but in summary, I do think that this will be a fairly high-scoring game because of the consistent performance of Missouri’s offense and the newfound elevation from Tennessee’s offense. Which team can make it count in the red zone? Which team can play turnover-free football? Can either team’s special teams unit make an impact in the game? To me, that’s where this game is decided. I’m going to predict a one-point victory for whoever it is. I think this one could go either way. I want to pick Mizzou, I really do. But Jack convinced me just enough on our last RTI Press Pass podcast to pick Tennessee. So if I’m wrong, I’m switching my pick back to the Tigers and putting the blame on Jack!
Seeing Luther Burden on the field warming up pre-game may drastically change my mind, too.
Prediction: Tennessee 34, Missouri 33
Tennessee heads to Missouri in its final “toss-up” game of the season. The game line has hovered around a pick ’em all week and it truly feels that way. The Vols and Tigers have nearly identical resumes. Both enter this matchup 7-2 (3-2 SEC) with their losses coming against Florida and Alabama (Tennessee) and LSU and Georgia (Missouri). How about best wins? Both teams won at Kentucky and have home wins against Texas A&M (Tennessee) and Kansas State (Missouri).
How about the matchup? Missouri has the best passing attack that Tennessee has faced all season at a time at a time where the Vols’ pass defense is starting to struggle. In two games without Kamal Hadden, Tennessee’s pass defense has taken a real step back. That’s not only due to Hadden’s absence though. The Vols’ pass rush hasn’t been as effective in recent weeks. That’s one of my biggest keys in this one. Tennessee’s pass rush needs to get back to early season form. On the other side, Tennessee’s offense is playing the best it has all season. The Vols’ running game has been fantastic all year and while Missouri has been solid against the run, Tennessee has run the ball well against better run defenses than Missouri. Joe Milton III is also playing his best football of his career. If Tennessee’s going to get its first top 25 win of the season, that has to continue.
As you can surmise from the above paragraph, I think both teams are going to move the ball effectively— especially between the 20-yard lines. I believe this game will come down to whoever can finish drives with touchdowns instead of field goals. Forcing a turnover would go a long way for either team too. I’ve gone back-and-forth on this game all week but I trust Missouri at home considering Tennessee’s red zone offensive struggles.
Prediction: Missouri 34, Tennessee 30
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 a slight 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.
Prediction: Tennessee 34, Missouri 30