The Missouri Tigers will host the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday night for a matchup between two SEC foes heading in opposite directions. After starting the season 5-1, the Tigers (5-5, 2-4 SEC) dropped their fourth game in a row last week to the 11th-ranked Florida Gators at home by a score of 23-6. Despite a defense that continues to play well, a slumping Mizzou offense has produced just 27 points during the four-game losing skid and has now gone nine consecutive quarters without a touchdown. While the Tigers' bowl aspirations remain in serious doubt with a potential postseason ban still hanging over their heads, pride and bragging rights should serve as motivation for the home-team on Senior Night. But will that be enough to right the ship and secure their sixth win of the season against the Vols?
Following a disappointing 1-4 start to the season, the surging Volunteers (5-5, 3-3) have now won three games in a row and four out of their last five. The Vols extended their streak with a hard-fought 17-13 win over Kentucky in Lexington on Nov. 6. Now, fresh off a bye, Tennessee will hit the road again in search of that all-important sixth win to become bowl eligible for the first time in three years.
Saturday night's contest will mark just the eighth meeting all-time between Tennessee and Missouri. Missouri holds a decisive 5-2 advantage in the series. And the Tigers have dominated the last two games against the Vols, scoring back-to-back 50-17 victories.
Tennessee at Missouri
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Missouri -4
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Tennessee's "musical chairs" quarterback situation appears to be down to two candidates this week with Brian Maurer and Jarrett Guarantano listed as potential starting options on the depth chart. While we could see both signal-callers at some point against Mizzou, it's probably safe to assume that Guarantano has earned his starting job back after coming off the bench to lead the team to three straight wins. During that stretch, the redshirt junior has averaged 10.22 yards per pass attempt, with a 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an impressive 180.7 quarterback rating.
Regardless of which Tennessee quarterback is on the field, they are going to be in for a serious challenge against the SEC's top-ranked pass defense (165.9 ypg). They also feature a formidable front seven and a pass rush – led by defensive lineman Kobie Whiteside (6 sacks) – that is sure to put the Vols' offensive line to the test.
The silver lining is that Tennessee boasts a group of physical wide receivers capable of creating explosive plays downfield. That group is headlined by Jauan Jennings (50 rec., 771 yds, 8 total TDs) and Marquez Callaway (5 TDs, SEC-best 22.14 ypc). It also bodes well that Missouri struggled to contain Florida's wide receivers last week, surrendering a season-high 330 yards and a pair of scores through the air against the Gators.
The Vols' biggest challenge on Saturday night may come in the form of a Missouri run defense that ranks 34th nationally (131.7 ypg) and allowed just 56 rushing yards last week against the Gators. Tennessee has shown flashes in the ground game, primarily with running back Ty Chandler, but the Vols have struggled to consistently gain traction with a rushing attack that ranks dead last in the SEC in yards per carry (3.77) and rushing touchdowns (7).
In a game where the kicking game will likely be a decisive factor, Tennessee has a clear edge with Brent Cimaglia. The junior placekicker has connected on an SEC-best 19-of-21 field goal attempts with a long of 53 yards. Conversely, Missouri's Tucker McCann has been successful on just 13 of his 19 attempts, along with three missed extra points this season.
When Missouri Has the Ball
After averaging 474 yards and 38.8 points through the first six games of the season, the Missouri offense has become something of an enigma over its last four games, averaging an abysmal 259 yards and 6.8 points per game. Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley even went so far as to describe the head-scratching decline of his offense as "football hell." Even with Kelly Bryant's return from a hamstring injury last week, the Tiger offense continued to sputter on its way to 256 yards and six points against Florida. Bryant averaged a woeful 5.23 yards per attempt with an interception in the loss. And the dual-threat quarterback would fare even worse with his legs, picking up 15 yards on 19 carries.
The good news is that All-SEC tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, running backs Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie and wide receivers Johnathan Johnson and Jonathan Nance didn't just suddenly forget how to play football at a high level. And there is still time for Bryant and this solid arsenal of proven offensive weapons to turn things around. The bad news is that time is limited, and this offense will be in for another big challenge on Saturday night against a Tennessee defense that seems to get better with each game.
The Vols currently boast the nation's 34th-best defense, allowing 348.6 yards per game. Linebacker Darrell Taylor leads the SEC with seven sacks. Defensive back Nigel Warrior's four interceptions are tied for the most in the conference. And a Tennessee defender has been named SEC Defensive Player of the Week in each of the Vols' last three games, with linebacker Daniel Bituli taking the honor twice (vs. South Carolina and Kentucky), and Bryce Thompson taking the other with a three-interception performance against UAB.
If the Tigers can somehow flip the switch and return to early-season form on offense, they should be able to give the Vols more than they can handle in front of the home crowd on Senior Night in Columbia. But that’s a huge "if" for an offense that has been lost in the fog for well over a month now. And it doesn't help matters that a well-rested Tennessee defense, in the midst of playing its best football of the season, has had two weeks to prepare for this matchup.
That being said, the Vols are far from juggernaut status on offense themselves, and they will have their hands full trying to put points on the scoreboard against a stout Missouri defense. That should keep it interesting. However, Tennessee has more to play for and a huge edge in momentum. That will be the difference on Saturday night, as the Vols squeak out a close one to reach six wins and bowl eligibility.
Prediction: Tennessee 20, Missouri 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.