The Missouri Tigers will host the Tennessee Volunteers in Columbia on Saturday for a matchup between SEC East foes looking to bounce back from disappointing losses last week.
Missouri (2-2, 0-1 SEC) will attempt to rebound from a heartbreaking 41-34 loss on the road to Boston College last Saturday. The Tigers appeared to have the momentum following Harrison Mevis' career-long 56-yard field goal to tie the game at 34 as time expired in regulation. However, Boston College struck first in overtime with a five-play touchdown drive. And the game was then brought to an abrupt end when Mizzou quarterback Connor Bazelak's pass was picked off in the end zone. Perhaps the biggest takeaway was the Tigers' inability to slow down the Boston College run game, an issue that has plagued the new-look Missouri defense in each of its first four contests. The Tigers hope to bring that trend to an end at home on Saturday against the Vols.
Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC) will try to pick up the pieces following a disappointing 38-14 loss to rival Florida in Gainesville last Saturday night. The Vols got off to a nice start against the 11th-ranked Gators. However, an array of self-inflicted mistakes coupled with a standout effort from Florida quarterback Emory Jones proved to be too much. The Volunteers were outscored 21-0 in the second half to secure the win for the Gators. Tennessee will now hit the road again in search of its first SEC victory of the season.
Saturday's game will mark the 10th meeting all-time between the two schools, with Missouri holding a slight 5-4 lead in the series. Tennessee has won both of the last two meetings.
Tennessee at Missouri
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Missouri -3
When Tennessee Has the Ball
A Tennessee offense that is averaging 422 yards and 35.5 points per game has shown flashes of just how dangerous it can be when executing at a high level. Unfortunately, the Vols' new up-tempo approach is still very much a work in progress under first-year head coach Josh Heupel. And far too often, this group has been its own worst enemy with untimely overthrows, dropped passes, and penalties that have prevented this offense from living up to its full potential.
The big question is who will be behind center for the Volunteers on Saturday? Hendon Hooker has clearly been the best option to this point, completing 65.7 percent of his passes for 613 yards with seven touchdowns against one interception, adding 136 yards and a pair of scores on the ground. A far cry better than Joe Milton III, who has struggled mightily with his accuracy, completing just 46.5 percent of his pass attempts for 243 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, adding 104 rushing yards and two more scores. Both signal-callers are trying to bounce back from injuries. But, for obvious reasons, Hooker should be the clear choice to start at quarterback against Missouri if healthy. Hooker did practice on Tuesday, which is a positive sign.
To this point, Tennessee has spread the ball around quite a bit in the passing game, utilizing 15 different pass catchers through the first four games. Tight end Jacob Warren has been the most reliable target, hauling in 11 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. leads the team with 160 receiving yards. And Mississippi State transfer JaVonta Payton has started to emerge as a legitimate deep threat, averaging 20.2 yards per catch, with a pair of big-play touchdowns over the last two games. That said, dropped passes continue to be a glaring issue, and the Vols need to get more from highly touted wideouts Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman, and Jimmy Calloway.
Despite being ranked dead last in the SEC in total defense, Missouri has been solid against the pass, allowing a very respectable 183.5 yards per game through the air. The Tigers also have five interceptions and 13 sacks to their credit, although much of that damage came in the season opener against Central Michigan (9 sacks, 2 INTs). If the Vols can get out of their own way in terms of keeping the self-inflicted wounds to a minimum (a big if), they should find some semblance of success with the passing game on Saturday against a Missouri defense that has yet to really be tested through the air.
The primary reason the Tigers have yet to be tested through the air is because the path of least resistance has come on the ground against a porous Mizzou run defense that is giving up a ridiculous 271 rushing yards per game (ranked 129th out of 130 FBS teams). The Tigers also have allowed 12 rushing touchdowns through four games.
That bodes extremely well for a Tennessee ground attack that averages 204.3 rushing yards per game (No. 32 in the FBS), spearheaded by running backs Tiyon Evans (42 att., 211 yds., 2 TDs) and Jabari Small (41, 194, 2). The only concern is a thin Tennessee offensive line that hasn't been quite as efficient when starting center Cooper Mays has been out of the lineup. And Mays appears doubtful for Saturday with an ankle injury. Regardless, the Vols should still have a big day on the ground against a really bad Mizzou run defense.
When Missouri Has the Ball
While the Missouri defense has proven to be a liability, the offense has thrived, averaging 483 yards and 38.8 points per game. Sophomore quarterback Connor Bazelak has been a big reason for that success, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,200 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Do-it-all running back Tyler Badie has played a huge role in the Tigers' success on offense as well. Badie ranks second in the SEC with 417 rushing yards, leads all SEC players in yards from scrimmage (593), and is tied for the conference lead in touchdowns (8). He also leads the Tigers in receptions (20) and receiving touchdowns (3).
Much like Tennessee, The Tigers' passing game has relied on a collective effort from a supporting cast that has showcased 15 different pass catchers through four games. Aside from Badie's team-best 20 receptions, Missouri has five other receivers that have double-digit receptions — Keke Chism (17 rec., 181 yds., TD), Tauskie Dove (10, 176), Chance Luper (11, 137, TD), Dominic Lovett (10, 111), and Mookie Cooper (10, 95). An offensive line that has allowed just three sacks has been instrumental for the passing attack as well.
The Tigers will be matched up against a Tennessee defense that is giving up 325 yards and 21.3 points per contest, led by defensive back Theo Jackson (32 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 passes defended). The Vols have been somewhat stingy against the run, allowing 111.5 rushing yards per game (No. 37 in the FBS). Nevertheless, Badie will present a serious challenge on the ground. The most likely path to success for the Mizzou offense will come through the air against a Tennessee defense that has been a bit more vulnerable against the pass, giving up 213.5 yards per game (No. 61 in the FBS).
There are reasons to like both teams in this matchup. Tennessee will have a big advantage on the ground against an inept Missouri run defense. But will that be enough for a Tennessee offense that routinely finds a way to shoot itself in the foot with untimely mistakes and penalties? There's also a matter of uncertainty at quarterback for the Volunteers. And while the Tennessee defense has been fairly solid to this point, it's going to be a real challenge to keep a potent Missouri offense out of the end zone. Throw in home-field advantage for the Tigers, and that should be just enough for Mizzou to squeak out a close win.
Prediction: Missouri 34, Tennessee 31
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.