The SEC is light on must-see games for Week 13, but the Missouri-Tennessee matchup in Knoxville has plenty of intrigue and importance in the overall league picture. The Tigers need two victories to claim the East Division once again, while the Volunteers need one more win to get bowl eligible in coach Butch Jones’ second year.
Both teams have been playing at their best over the last few weeks. Missouri has a four-game winning streak, which started after a 34-0 loss to Georgia on Oct. 11. The Tigers won at Texas A&M last Saturday and have allowed more than 14 points only once during this four-game streak. Tennessee has a two-game winning streak, but Jones’ team has been playing better since the insertion of sophomore Joshua Dobbs into the lineup. The Volunteers knocked off South Carolina in overtime (45-42) on Nov. 1 and then defeated Kentucky in commanding fashion (50-16) in Knoxville last Saturday.
Standout Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive back Michael Williams are not expected to play due to an suspension resulting from an off-field incident. Johnson is one of the top defenders in the SEC and is the team’s top tackler (101).
These two teams have only played twice in previous years. Missouri owns a 2-0 edge over Tennessee, winning 31-3 last year and 51-48 in 2012.
Missouri-Tennessee is the Talk Back game of the week. Visit att.com/TalkBack to watch the game with former Missouri receiver Justin Gage and former Tennessee receiver Joey Kent. Hop in and ask a question.
Missouri at Tennessee
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Tennessee -3.5
Missouri’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk was pegged by some as a potential All-SEC candidate in 2014. The sophomore has experienced his share of ups and downs this year but has 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions and is coming off his best performance (252 yards, 57.5%) in a SEC game this year. Five of Mauk’s 10 interceptions have come in losses, so it’s critical the sophomore limits his mistakes against a Tennessee defense that’s forced 19 turnovers through 10 games. In last week’s victory against Texas A&M, Missouri posted a season high of 587 total yards on offense and averaged 6.6 yards per play. The Tigers were balanced in their offensive approach, with running back Russell Hansbrough nearly eclipsing the 200-yard plateau (199). Mauk is still developing in his first year under center and should have an infusion of confidence after a good showing against the Aggies last Saturday. Tennessee’s secondary has allowed only eight passing scores in six conference games this year and opposing quarterbacks are completing just 53.5 percent of their throws (SEC-only games). The Volunteers have struggled to stop the run in conference action (191.7 ypg), and that’s a matchup Missouri should look to exploit after Hansbrough’s game against Texas A&M. In a tough road environment, it’s not easy to ask Mauk to shoulder all of the offensive load. That’s why the Tigers need to establish balance and let Hansbrough have his share of touches against a struggling run defense.
Tennessee’s Key to Victory: Protect QB Joshua Dobbs
Sophomore Joshua Dobbs has been on fire since ditching his redshirt against Alabama. He finished 19 of 32 for 192 yards and two scores against the Crimson Tide and threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 166 yards and three scores against South Carolina. In last week’s 50-16 win over Kentucky, Dobbs added 48 yards on the ground and completed 19 of 27 passes for 297 yards and three scores. The sophomore has clearly progressed as a quarterback since the end of 2013, but Missouri’s defense should provide a stiff test on Saturday night. The Tigers are tied with Alabama in SEC games by holding opponents to just 4.2 yards per play – the best mark in the SEC. Led by defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the Tigers rank second with 32 sacks in 10 games. With an active pass rush, the secondary doesn’t have to cover for long, but this unit will have talented sophomore Aarion Penton back in the lineup after a one-game suspension due to an off-field incident. Tennessee’s offensive line is the biggest weakness on an offense that is filled with talent at running back and receiver, along with an emerging star at quarterback. Missouri’s pass rush will look to keep Dobbs in the pocket and not allow the sophomore to make plays with his legs on the outside. Will the Tigers get to Dobbs? Or can the sophomore escape the rush and continue his hot play of recent weeks?
Just how light is the slate in the SEC this Saturday? Only three games feature matchups between two conference opponents. The rest are one-sided non-conference affairs. That’s why the spotlight in the SEC should be on this game. Tennessee and Missouri seem to be playing their best ball of the season at the right time, and there’s plenty at stake. The Tigers seem to be finding the right mix on offense, and their pass rush should find a way to get to Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs. It’s tough to pick a winner considering how well the Volunteers have played over the last few weeks, but Missouri has the edge on defense and seems to be finding the right answers on offense. Expect a close game, with the Tigers winning late in the fourth quarter.