Can Drew Lock keep Mizzou's explosive offense rolling against the Vols on Saturday night?
The Tennessee Volunteers and Missouri Tigers will face off in Columbia on Saturday night, marking just the sixth meeting all-time between the two schools. Missouri leads the overall series by a 3-2 margin. However, Tennessee has won the last two matchups, including a 19-8 victory over the Tigers the last time the Vols visited Faurot Field.
Tennessee (4-5, 0-5 SEC) enters Saturday night’s matchup after snapping a four-game losing streak with a 24-10 win over Conference USA’s Southern Miss. It marked the Volunteers’ 12th consecutive win over a non-conference opponent, providing a much-needed boost of momentum. Unfortunately, that is where the positives end. Tennessee remains winless in conference play, injuries are once again piling up at a record pace, and the Butch Jones fiasco rages on with no clear indication of resolution in sight. Regardless, the Vols must forge ahead in search of that elusive first SEC victory, and they do have an opportunity to become bowl eligible by winning two of their final three contests.
Missouri (4-5, 1-4) has sparked a huge turnaround after a 1-5 start to its 2017 campaign. Barry Odom’s Tigers have now won each of their last three games by an average margin of 39 points per game. They even managed to earn their first conference win of the season in impressive fashion, beating a demoralized Florida team by a score of 45-16 at home last week. Like Tennessee, the Tigers still must win two of their final three games to secure a spot in the postseason. But it is plausible for Missouri to run the table down the stretch. The Tigers’ final three opponents currently have just one SEC win among them.
Tennessee at Missouri
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Missouri -11
Three Things to Watch
1. Missouri’s red-hot passing game vs. Tennessee’s top-ranked pass defense
Over the last five games, Drew Lock is averaging 336 passing yards, with an impressive 21-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The junior quarterback has thrown no fewer than three touchdown passes in a game during that span and now leads the nation with 31 passing touchdowns on the year. But Lock hasn’t done it all on his own. The Missouri offensive line has allowed the second-fewest sacks in the SEC (eight). A trio of talented deep-threat wide receivers — J’Mon Moore, Emanuel Hall and Johnathon Johnson — all average over 16 yards per catch, with 16 touchdown receptions among them. And Lock’s favorite red zone target, TE Albert Okwuegbunam, has seven touchdown catches of his own.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s best attribute on defense this season has been defending the pass. The Vols currently have the top-ranked pass defense in the SEC (No. 4 in the FBS), limiting opposing passing games to just 150 yards per contest. They have allowed only seven touchdowns through the air in nine games as well. That said, Tennessee also has faced the fewest pass attempts of any team in the nation. And the Vols have yet to be tested by a passing attack even close to the caliber of Missouri’s. While this looks like a great matchup on paper, the Tigers have the weaponry to light up the Tennessee pass defense on Saturday night.
2. Tennessee passing game vs. Missouri pass defense
The good news is that the Tennessee offense continued to show signs of life last week, scoring 24 points on a middle-of-the-road Southern Miss defense. The bad news is that ankle injuries to quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and receiver Marquez Callaway, to go along with an already makeshift offensive line, didn’t make for an encouraging performance down the stretch.
Guarantano is expected to return this week, albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. Callaway is questionable, and a beat-up Vols offensive line remains a mystery. True freshman quarterback Will McBride also may see action again after burning his redshirt last week. None of which bodes particularly well for a Tennessee passing game that was just starting to gain some traction.
That’s not to say that Tennessee won’t have its opportunities to exploit a suspect Missouri secondary. The Tigers rank second-to-last in the SEC against the pass, allowing 260 yards per game. Mizzou will likely stack the box to slow Tennessee’s capable run game, which could yield positive results for the Tennessee passing attack, if it can capitalize on one-on-one matchups. The X-factor will be how the Vols’ offensive line handles a Missouri pass rush that has produced 11 sacks over the last three weeks.
3. The run game
The passing game is Missouri’s bread and butter on offense. But a ground game spearheaded by senior Ish Witter and true freshman Larry Rountree III is solid as well. The Tigers’ 5.1 yards per carry average ranks fourth best in the SEC. And they have averaged close to 200 rushing yards per game over the last three weeks with seven rushing touchdowns. Witter and Rountree will likely prove to be a handful for a porous Tennessee run defense that ranks 122nd in the nation, surrendering 237.3 rushing yards per game.
The ground game looms large for the Vols in this matchup. John Kelly (above, right) and Ty Chandler are as talented as they come, and a Missouri run defense that ranks 87th nationally, allowing 181.3 rushing yards per game, can be vulnerable. That being said, the Tigers have made marked improvement in that regard over the last few weeks, and the Tennessee ground game will need plenty of help from the passing game to get things going on Saturday. The Volunteers probably won’t find much success repeatedly handing the ball off to Kelly and Chandler for the entire game.
If you read the “Things to Watch” section, you’ve probably already concluded that Missouri has a fairly significant edge in this matchup. The Tigers’ fast-paced offense simply has too much firepower for the Volunteer defense to contend with at the moment.
The Missouri defense still has plenty of weak spots for Tennessee to exploit as well. Which is why I believe that the Vols will find a way to put points on the scoreboard, despite their many issues on offense. It just won’t be nearly enough to keep up with the surging Tigers in front of their home crowd.
Prediction: Missouri 41, Tennessee 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.