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Missouri Tigers vs. Tennessee Volunteers Prediction and Preview

Missouri Tigers vs. Tennessee Volunteers Prediction and Preview

Missouri Tigers vs. Tennessee Volunteers Prediction and Preview

The Tennessee Volunteers will host the Missouri Tigers in Knoxville on Saturday for a matchup between two SEC foes riding late-season surges. The Tigers (6-4, 2-4 SEC) have now won back-to-back SEC games after starting their 2018 campaign 0-4 in conference play. They followed up an emphatic 38-17 victory over Florida in The Swamp by edging out Vanderbilt 33-28 last week at home. The come-from-behind win against the Commodores proved particularly rewarding, giving Mizzou its sixth win of the season to secure bowl eligibility. The Tigers will now head back into hostile territory to face Tennessee with an opportunity to improve on their bowl prospects with win number seven. In tow will be Missouri offensive coordinator and former Vols head coach Derek Dooley, who returns to Rocky Top for the first time since his firing in 2012.

The Volunteers (5-5, 2-4) also enter Saturday’s divisional tilt with back-to-back wins and a jolt of momentum. Tennessee secured its second conference victory of the season in upset fashion by handily defeating No. 11 Kentucky 24-7 last Saturday in Knoxville. It proved to be the Vols’ most complete performance of the season, and it could not have come at a better time. But Tennessee still finds itself in desperate straits, needing one more victory in its final two contests to guarantee a bowl berth. The Vols can put that concern to rest by scoring another upset win on Saturday.

Missouri at Tennessee

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV: CBS

Spread: Missouri -6

Three Things to Watch

1. Tennessee passing game vs. Missouri pass defense

You won’t find many negatives in Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano. The sophomore quarterback has proven to be tough as nails, as well as incredibly efficient. He’s completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,768 yards with an 11-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s already broken the school record for consecutive passes (146) without an interception, and he is on pace for the best single-season completion percentage in school history.

If there is a knock on Guarantano, it’s that his efficient play often comes at the cost of production. He has thrown for 200 yards or more just twice in 10 games this season. And he’s never thrown for more than two touchdowns in 19 career games. Guarantano will need to up the ante on Saturday if Tennessee hopes to keep pace with Mizzou on the scoreboard. The good news is that conditions are favorable for that to happen.

Missouri’s secondary has been easily exploitable throughout 2018, which is why the Tigers rank just 118th nationally (13th in the SEC) against the pass, giving up 277 yards per game. They also have allowed 20 passing touchdowns and 14 pass plays of 40 yards or more in 10 games. That bodes well for a physical group of Tennessee receivers who have shown a propensity for explosive plays throughout the season. The Vols still have concerns with pass protection. However, the Tennessee offensive line held its own in that regard against a potent Kentucky pass rush last week, and Missouri has struggled to generate much of a pass rush with just 16 sacks on the season.

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2. The run game

Missouri has high hopes for its ground attack this week, and with good reason. The Tigers absolutely feasted on Tennessee’s defense last season, rushing for a ridiculous 433 yards. It’s highly unlikely that a much-improved Tennessee run defense will allow a repeat performance on Saturday. But a big game is certainly not out of the question for a strong Mizzou ground attack, spearheaded by the one-two punch of Larry Rountree III and Damarea Crockett.

Rountree III leads the Tigers with 758 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the year, while Crockett isn’t far behind with 699 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Crockett has shined brightest of late, rushing for at least 114 yards and a touchdown in each of his last two games. Crockett also ran for a career-high 225 yards and a score in his last visit to Knoxville in 2016. Tennessee has been outstanding against the run over the last two weeks, particularly last week, limiting Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. to just 81 yards on the ground. But the Vols are sure to have their hands full with the dynamic duo of Crockett and Rountree III playing behind a veteran Missouri offensive line.

The ability (or inability) to run the football on Saturday looms particularly large for Tennessee. Consistency in this area has been a major problem for the Vols throughout 2018. The Tennessee ground game will be put to the test against a Missouri run defense that has been solid, allowing 134 rushing yards per game. Last week proved to be an exception, however, as Vanderbilt’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran wild on the Mizzou defense, resulting in the Tigers giving up a season-high 216 rushing yards. Meanwhile, Tennessee ran for 215 yards against a stout Kentucky run defense, its best performance against SEC competition all season. That bodes well for the Vols, but only if the Tennessee offensive line can manage to show up two weeks in a row.

3. Drew Lock and the Missouri passing game

A more balanced Missouri offense under Derek Dooley has not yielded the same eye-popping numbers that Drew Lock put up last season with Josh Heupel as offensive coordinator. But the senior quarterback is still having a standout campaign, completing 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,647 yards with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Lock’s career against the Vols has run the gamut, ranging from awful to great. However, there is one area in which the All-SEC quarterback has been consistently bad. In three career starts, Lock has never once completed better than 48 percent of his passes against Tennessee. It could prove problematic if that trend continues Saturday.

Lock and company will be paired against a Tennessee pass defense that allows a respectable 205 passing yards per game (40th nationally and 6th in the SEC). And a young Tennessee secondary seems to be improving each week. That said, it has been a while since the Vols faced a truly potent passing attack, and Tennessee proved to be quite vulnerable against high-powered passing attacks earlier in the season.

The Vols will need to be particularly aware of deep threat Emanuel Hall, who leads Missouri with 529 receiving yards despite missing four games. Hall can stretch the field with the best of them, as he proved last season when he torched Tennessee for 102 yards and two scores. One player the Vols won’t have to worry about is Albert Okwuegbunam (shoulder). The star tight end leads the Tigers in both receptions (43) and touchdown catches (6). His absence leaves a big void for Lock and the Missouri passing game.

Final Analysis

The Vols won’t be facing a one-dimensional offense like the one they faced last week. It’s going to be a much taller order for Tennessee to keep the Missouri offense in check this week. However, the fact that Tennessee has allowed just one touchdown in its last eight quarters of football is all the proof you need to see that Jeremy Pruitt’s defense is finally getting up to speed. And despite Tennessee’s struggles offensively, the Missouri defense can be plenty generous with issues of its own. Then there are the intangibles, which all favor Tennessee. The Volunteers have momentum and home-field advantage, it's Senior Day, and they simply have more at stake with bowl eligibility on the line. It won’t be easy, and the Tigers are fully capable of steamrolling the Vols if they aren’t up for the challenge. But it’s hard not to like Tennessee’s chances to pull off the upset under the circumstances.

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Prediction: Tennessee 28, Missouri 27

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.