Tennessee football heads to Columbia on Saturday afternoon looking for its first top 25 win of the season at No. 14 Missouri. The Vols are looking for their fifth straight win in the series but this is the best Tigers team they’ll face in years.
Josh Heupel’s team is slight favorites in this one and the margins are extremely small in the week 11 matchup. This is a game where one or two plays could make a huge difference.
Here’s three keys for Tennessee to exit Missouri with a win.
Get The Pass Rush Back To Form
Tennessee’s pass rush was the main reason its defense had taken such a serious step forward this season. But in each of the Vols’ last two games, their pass rush has struggled and the pass defense has struggled with them.
Now that’s an oversimplification. Kamal Hadden’s absence hasn’t done the Vols any favors, teams are max protecting more and the pass rush started to have more success in the second half of the UConn game.
But the point still stands, Tennessee’s defensive improvement is tied to its pass rush and against the best passing attack they’ve faced all season the Vols’ pass rush has to make Brady Cook’s life difficult.
Missouri has a strong run game too but it isn’t dominant and the Vols’ run defense is good enough to slow it down. Tennessee’s best chance to have defensive success and lock down Tigers is to slow down Missouri’s explosive passing offense. In my opinion, the only way that happens is if Tennessee’s pass rush performs like it did against South Carolina and Texas A&M.
James Pearce Jr. and Tyler Baron are two of the most important Vols in this one.
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Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers
This is a simple one. Winning the turnover battle has been important in every game in the history of football. But the reason I think this is particularly important in this game is because both teams are going to be able to move the ball affectively.
In my opinion, both teams offenses are better than the opponent’s defense. Not by a wide margin but enough that I don’t expect a lot of three-and-outs in this game.
In a shootout style game, every possession becomes extremely valuable. Stealing a possession here or there could be the difference in the game. It was when Tennessee turned Kentucky over on downs deep in its own territory two week ago.
The Vols’ defense has sneakily been really strong at forcing turnovers this season. Game changing turnovers at that. Kamal Hadden’s pick six against South Carolina flipped the game and James Pearce Jr’s strip sack and Jaylen McCollough’s interception is why Tennessee led Alabama at halftime.
Tim Banks’ defense needs to find another one of those big turnovers against Missouri. Josh Heupel and Joey Halzle’s offense needs to avoid them.
Finish Drives With Touchdowns
The turnover battle was my first key based off the fact that I think both teams will be able to move the football. The second is that whichever team ends drives in the end zone will probably win.
I expect both Missouri and Tennessee to have a multitude of drives end in scoring range. And both Missouri (Harrison Mevis) and Tennessee (Charles Campbell) have really good kickers. But neither teams wants them to get much work in this one.
Even with Tennessee’s offensive improvement over the last month, they’ve struggled to finish drives with touchdowns instead of field goals. That’s going to be incredibly important in this game. Tennessee needs to get over the hump and score touchdowns once it enters the scoring zone.
The same goes for Tennessee’s defense and that could be a tough task because Missouri’s offense makes them hard to defend even when the field shrinks. More than any other key, this one will decide who wins the top 15 showdown.