The No. 21-ranked Tennessee Volunteers are set to host the Missouri Tigersfor an SEC East clash on Saturday afternoon in front of a limited crowd inside Neyland Stadium. It will mark the ninth meeting all-time between the two schools, with Missouri leading the series 5-3. Tennessee won last year's matchup in Columbia, 24-20.
Missouri officially kicked off the Eliah Drinkwitz Era at home last Saturday night with a 38-19 loss to powerhouse Alabama. Drinkwitz's debut went about as well as expected considering the circumstances and the opponent. The Tigers fought hard until the end, battling back from a 35-6 deficit to outscore the Crimson Tide 13-3 in the final quarter. But it was far too little, too late, for an overmatched Mizzou squad. The Tigers will now embark on their first road trip under Drinkwitz in search of redemption in the form an upset victory on Rocky Top.
Tennessee kicked off its 2020 campaign with a hard-fought 31-27 win on the road against South Carolina last Saturday night. The Vols clearly had some rust to knock off in a somewhat uneven performance, but a handful of explosive plays helped them secure their first SEC road win of the season. More importantly, Tennessee has won seven consecutive games dating back to last season, giving Jeremy Pruitt and his Volunteers the nations' longest active win-streak among Power 5 teams. They hope to parlay that momentum into another victory on Saturday against Mizzou in their home opener.
Missouri at No. 21 Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -11.5
When Missouri Has the Ball
We got our first glimpse of Drinkwitz's offense last Saturday night, an offense that featured a lot of pre-snap motion, along with plenty of misdirection and option plays in a bid to keep the defense off-balance. It was largely unsuccessful against an aggressive Crimson Tide defense. The Tigers did have success moving the football at times but struggled to sustain drives and find the end zone.
Shawn Robinson, a former TCU transfer, was somewhat efficient in the passing game in his first start at quarterback for the Tigers, completing 19-of-25 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown. However, the dual-threat signal-caller played it fairly safe through the air and had serious issues on the ground with -35 rushing yards and a costly fumble. Redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak also got a few turns at quarterback with mixed results. Junior wide receiver Jalen Knox led the Tigers in receiving with five catches for 65 yards, followed by running back Tyler Badie (1 reception, 54 yards, 1 touchdown), Dominic Gicinto (3 receptions, 44 yards), and Virginia Tech transfer Damon Hazelton (5 receptions, 34 yards).
Robinson is expected to get the start at quarterback again on Saturday, but Bazelak will likely get an opportunity under center as well. Will the Mizzou passing attack find success against Tennessee? It's possible; the Vols did give up 290 yards and a touchdown through the air to Collin Hill in his first-ever start for the Gamecocks last week. Tennessee also struggled mightily to defend slant routes and passes over the middle in the matchup against South Carolina, an area that Missouri will surely look to exploit on Saturday as well. However, at least some of the Vols' woes against the pass last week were the result of an improvised Tennessee secondary that was missing lockdown pass defender Shawn Shamburger, whose status is still unclear for Saturday's game.
The strength of the Missouri offense may lie with running backs Larry Rountree III and Badie, arguably the Tigers' top weapons on that side of the ball. Drinkwitz expressed regret in not getting them more touches last week against Alabama, particularly Rountree, who ran for 67 yards on just 14 carries against the Crimson Tide. As a result, look for Drinkwitz to put forth more effort in establishing the run against Tennessee. However, running room may not be easy to come by against the Vols, which allowed just 2.5 yards per carry last week against South Carolina. The Tigers also struggled on the ground against Tennessee last season, averaging 2.7 yards per carry.
The Mizzou offensive line will face the tall task of keeping an emerging Tennessee pass rush at bay. The Vols racked up four sacks to go along with four quarterback hurries against the Gamecocks. Deandre Johnson led the way with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble to earn SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors. The Tigers will also need to be mindful of linebacker Henry To'o To'o and cornerback Bryce Thompson. To'o To'o, the star of Tennessee's defense, returned a 32-yard interception for a touchdown last week. Thompson, now a junior, hasn't allowed a touchdown pass since his freshman year.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had some shining moments in last week's win against the Gamecocks, completing 19-of-31 pass attempts for 259 yards and a touchdown and adding another score on the ground. However, the fifth-year senior was equally frustrating at times and his lack of consistency continues to be a major concern. Guarantano routinely overthrew open receivers in critical down-and-distance situations last week, which played a big role in the Vols' horrible 1-of-12 conversion rate on third down.
The good news is that Guarantano will face a Missouri pass defense on Saturday that he absolutely torched through the air last fall to the tune of 415 passing yards and two scores. The Tigers do return a pair of talented safeties in Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe to help police the back end. But with top cornerback Jarvis Ware battling a knee injury and true freshman Ennis Rakestraw Jr. starting at the other cornerback spot, the Mizzou pass defense will be vulnerable once again on Saturday. That certainly bodes well for Tennessee's receiving corps, led by Josh Palmer. The senior wide receiver opened the 2020 campaign with six receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown against South Carolina. Palmer racked up six catches for 124 yards against Missouri last season.
The Vols will be challenged up front and in the run game by a formidable Missouri front-seven, headlined by defensive lineman Kobie Whiteside and All-SEC linebacker Nick Bolton. The Tigers limited a potent Alabama ground attack to just 3.1 yards per carry last week. And while Tennessee was solid in the run game against South Carolina (133 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns), Vol running backs Ty Chandler (13 carries for 86 yards) and Eric Gray (12 carries for 40 yards and 1 touchdown) could have their work cut out for them against the Tigers. A stout Tennessee offensive line, led by All-SEC guard Trey Smith, will help the cause. But if last week's performance was any indication, the Vols' O-line still has some work to do before reaching dominant status, and it will be put to the test again on Saturday.
Tennessee has a lot to improve on after narrowly escaping South Carolina with a win last week. And with a matchup looming against Georgia next week, the Vols would be ill-advised to overlook Missouri in a potential trap game. That being said, Missouri has even more areas to improve upon, and Drinkwitz's new-look offense appears to be a long way from working out the kinks. The Tigers will be stout up front defensively, but Tennessee should be able to capitalize on mismatches in the passing game against a suspect Mizzou secondary, so long as Guarantano can find some semblance of consistency. Tennessee's edge in talent, experience, and depth will also go a long way in helping the Vols extend their win-streak to eight games on Saturday at home against the Tigers.
Prediction: Tennessee 30, Missouri 20
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.