Tennessee at Missouri preview: All eyes on the young quarterbacks

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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Tennessee at Missouri

Record BCS
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
Tennessee 4-4 N/A 57 71 50 18
Missouri 7-1 9 12 22 9 91

We'll start with our weekly look at win projections.

Mizzou's win probability
Tennessee: 95% (last week: 93%)
at Kentucky: 94% (95%)
Texas A&M: 68% (75%)
at Ole Miss: 58% (61%)


Not surprisingly, Missouri's probabilities fell when its overall rating took a little hit, but in all, we're looking at basically the same here. Missouri has an 89 percent chance of beating both Tennessee and Kentucky, a 52 percent chance of winning the next three, and a 35 percent chance of winning out.

I maintain that winning the next two games are the single most important goal for this season. Win those two, get to 9-1, and at worst you're playing for a 10th win in a January 1 bowl game. That would be huge, not only because of where Missouri was last year but because of where Missouri wants to be moving forward. Of course, my goals are higher than that; I indeed want to win out, I indeed want a shot at Alabama. But winning the next two games -- games in which Missouri is and will be favored by double digits -- assures that the floor for this season is quite high while you still shoot for the ceiling.

As I mentioned in this morning's SEC Roundup at SBN, this game will be, as much as anything, a test of leadership.

A good portion of Missouri's success in 2013 -- and despite last week's rough late loss to South Carolina, a 7-1 record and an SEC East lead are still drastic successes in the wake of last year's 5-7 campaign -- has been credited to quality leadership from upperclassmen like receiver L'Damian Washington and linebacker Andrew Wilson. If the leadership truly is strong, then the Tigers should be able to bounce back from last week and play at a pretty high level. The Tigers will need to, because while Tennessee is still too young to take a game from a superior opponent without some help, the Vols proved against both Georgia and South Carolina that they are far enough along in their development to take advantage of whatever mistakes you make.

Tennessee has shown some fire and resilience but still barely sneaks into the F/+ top 50 overall. The Vols are still a work in progress and aren't yet ready to beat a Missouri team that plays really well. So uh, play really well, guys.

When Tennessee Has The Ball…

Obviously it's difficult to glean just a ton fromstats that came almost entirely from a different quarterback -- Justin Worley is out, and true freshman Joshua Dobbs is in -- but I think it still shows us a bit about strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies.

Standard Downs
Tenn.
Offense
Missouri
Defense
SD % Run 61.1%
(48th)

S&P+ Rk 18th 16th
Success Rate 50.0% 47.1%
PPP 0.55 0.45
S&P 1.051 0.917
Rushing S&P 1.091 0.790
Passing S&P 0.987 1.037

Tennessee wants to attempt balance on offense, running and passing about an average amount of the time on standard downs. These are, as I've said before, the game-planning downs, the strategy downs. Tennessee runs and passes reasonably well, but stopping the run is likely the key here. For one thing, UT's a little better at running than passing on these downs; for another, the Vols could be tempted to go even more run-heavy to take pressure off of their freshman quarterback.

If Tennessee were to run more early in a set of downs, it would play to Missouri's strengths quite a bit. Missouri's focus has been on stopping the run on standard downs and the pass on passing downs. (Makes sense, yes?) Mike Davis couldn't get rolling last week, though UT's offensive line is probably better than South Carolina's. Still, it will be interesting to see how UT's play-calling changes with the newbie. You could also make the case that throwing more on first down is a good way to get a quarterback comfortable and into a rhythm, since he's probably not going to be facing many blitzes in those situations.

Targets & Catches
Pig Howard: 17 targets, 11 catches, 94 yards (5.5 per target)
Jason Croom: 13 targets, 8 catches, 102 yards (7.8)
Rajion Neal: 12 targets, 9 catches, 23 yards (1.9)
Marquez North: 12 targets, 7 catches, 72 yards (6.0)
Josh Smith: 11 targets, 6 catches, 124 yards (11.3)
Brendan Downs: 11 targets, 5 catches, 42 yards (3.8)

UT has leaned on Alton Howard a bit, but the balance here is pretty impressive. When the Vols have thrown, they've gone to any of six different targets. Of course, "balance" suggests quality, too, and four of the six targets are averaging 6.0 yards per target or worse, and only one is averaging better than 7.8. This isn't necessarily a big play-action attack here; on standard downs, UT attempts easy throws as an extension of the run game. It's safe enough that one might figure the Vols will continue throwing even with the freshman.

Passing Downs
Tenn.
Offense
Missouri
Defense
PD % Run 32.0%
(79th)

S&P+ Rk 84th 39th
Success Rate 25.0% 32.4%
PPP 0.43 0.48
S&P 0.679 0.801
Rushing S&P 0.790 0.938
Passing S&P 0.627 0.757

UT has skewed a bit pass-heavy on passing downs, but only a bit. Again, balance is the general watchword here, though a lot of the passes are again of the short variety. Of the six targets listed below, only two are averaging better than 11.0 yards per catch, and one of those two guys only has two passing downs catches. I guess we'll find out if (or how much) Tennessee trusts Dobbs' arm as compared to Worley's.

Targets & Catches
Howard: 22 targets, 11 catches, 122 yards (5.5)
North: 17 targets, 8 catches, 174 yards (10.2)
Neal: 9 targets, 6 catches, 33 yards (3.7)
Smith: 8 targets, 3 catches, 31 yards (3.9)
Downs: 7 targets, 2 catches, 2 yards (0.3)
Croom: 5 targets, 2 catches, 38 yards (7.6)

Actually, no, the watchword here is safety. Tennessee plays things conservatively on passing downs, frequently throwing in front of the sticks and trying more to avoid mistakes than catch up on schedule. The defense is young but reasonably effective, and Tennessee has tried not to put it in unfavorable situations. As a result, the Vols have been pretty awful on passing downs. Hopefully that won't change on Saturday.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Because of passing downs, I think Missouri's defense has a relatively significant advantage over Tennessee's offense overall. Tennessee will move the chains, and the short game (running and passing) will work at times, but when the Vols have to make a play, they don't necessarily make it. That's a good thing because the matchup when Missouri is on offense is quite a bit closer.

Standard Downs
Missouri
Offense
Tenn.
Defense
SD % Run 53.6%
(99th)

S&P+ Rk 26th 26th
Success Rate 51.9% 46.4%
PPP 0.63 0.56
S&P 1.151 1.029
Rushing S&P 1.078 1.006
Passing S&P 1.235 1.065

As mentioned yesterday, Tennessee is vulnerable to quality blocking on the perimeter, and Missouri has some of the best blocking receivers in college football. One has to think Missouri will try to take advantage of that.

The Tigers' run rates have crept up a smidge since Maty Mauk took over, but this offense still is what it is, running and passing each about 50 percent of the time. We don't know who will get the carries -- for all we know, Russell Hansbrough will still be limited, and Henry Josey won't pass his concussion test -- but we know what Missouri wants to do. And lord knows there should be bubble screens involved.

Targets & Catches
Marcus Lucas: 36 targets, 21 catches, 240 yards (6.7)
L'Damian Washington: 34 targets, 22 catches, 393 yards (11.6)
Dorial Green-Beckham: 33 targets, 18 catches, 269 yards (8.2)
Bud Sasser: 16 targets, 10 catches, 127 yards (7.9)
Jimmie Hunt: 13 targets, 11 catches, 152 yards (11.7)

Again from this morning's SBN piece:

Meanwhile, assuming Maty Mauk indeed makes his third start, he could find it beneficial to stick with the horizontal game a bit more than he did against Florida and South Carolina. Tennessee's pass defense is strong despite an only mediocre pass rush, but the Vols are vulnerable against both the run (48th in Rushing S&P+) and, as Alabama backed up last week, the bubble screen, a staple of Missouri's offense. Mauk wants to make plays downfield, but if he takes what Tennessee gives him, the Vols should give him enough.

Tennessee's secondary is young and effective; granted, so is Florida's, and Missouri found holes downfield. But Mauk fell victim to looking downfield a bit too much against South Carolina, and while his receivers didn't help him out a ton -- DGB had a couple of drops, obviously, and Washington never looked for a ball that ended up bouncing off of his helmet for a pick -- he will still need to learn to take easier options sometimes. Easier options are available against Tennessee; we'll see where he looks with the ball.

(And hey, if this is the game where "Just lob it to DGB" works like 10 times for 325 yards, I won't complain.)

Passing Downs
Missouri
Offense
Tenn.
Defense
PD % Run 39.8%
(25th)

S&P+ Rk 12th 30th
Success Rate 40.4% 34.6%
PPP 0.71 0.58
S&P 1.113 0.937
Rushing S&P 1.114 0.747
Passing S&P 1.113 1.025

I just love Josh Henson's passing downs play-calling. Missouri runs almost as much on passing downs as on standard downs, treating third-and-5 or third-and-6 like a run-first situation, forcing the defense to pay attention to the backfield, and opening up passing lanes deeper downfield. And the run game is good enough to pull it off. Missouri runs and passes equally effectively on these downs, and South Carolina aside, this has been a very big reason for the Tigers' success.

Tennessee's defense has been solid on passing downs, however, especially against the run. The Vols also don't rush the passer all that well, which means that Mauk might have time to look downfield. The question, I guess, is how many dropped-back defenders he'll see when he looks.

Targets & Catches
Lucas: 21 targets, 17 catches, 197 yards (9.4 per target)
DGB: 16 targets, 12 catches, 185 yards (11.6)
Washington: 14 targets, 9 catches, 224 yards (16.0)
Sasser: 6 targets, 4 catches, 35 yards (5.8)
Jimmie Hunt: 5 targets, 5 catches, 50 yards (10.0)

Missouri has done so well with balance in 2013. Tennessee, however, plays the pass well on standard downs and the run well on passing downs (the opposite of Mizzou, basically). That can make you one-dimensional, but that one dimension could be pretty successful. We'll see.

Summary

So here are the key factors, then:

1. The Tennessee run. Missouri really has been strong against the run for the most part, and no matter how much the Vols attempt to run -- whether they lean on it more, less, or just the same amount with Dobbs -- their success (or lack thereof) will be pretty big. Tennessee's line really is one of the best Missouri has seen this year, and if Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane can deflect attention away from Dobbs and keep Tennessee on schedule, the Vols can and will stick around for a while. But if Mizzou does as well against Neal and Lane as it did against Mike Davis and South Carolina last week ... well, no offense, Joshua Dobbs, but you're not Connor Shaw, at least not right now. If Dobbs is forced to make plays, he probably won't. That's life as a freshman.

2. What did Maty learn? Maty Mauk looked like a redshirt freshman last week. Granted, he looked like a good redshirt freshman with a load of potential, but he made mistakes he probably won't make as a junior. He fled the pocket out the back door, leading to a lot of throwaways and difficult passes near the sideline. He forced passes into windows that weren't open nearly as much as he thought they were. He fired 100 mph fastballs to receivers nine yards away. He'll learn, but tomorrow we get to find out how quick a learner her is. It will help that Tennessee doesn't have Jadeveon Clowney; but the Vols still have a good secondary that can take advantage of mistakes. How many does he make in his third start (assuming he's actually making the start)?

3. Special TeamsI mentioned this yesterday.

Special teams is an area in which Tennessee absolutely has the upper-hand, at least if Bad Mizzou shows up here. Andrew Baggett is capable of making five FGs in a game or missing a key PAT. Marcus Murphy is obviously dangerous but hasn't done much this year (and if he's carrying more of a load thanks to injuries to Russell Hansbrough and Henry Josey, he might not be returning kicks at all). Christian Brinser is good and bad. One of the keys to this game will be limiting the advantage Tennessee creates through special teams. A special teams advantage isn't always a special teams advantage, and it would behoove Missouri to bring its A-game here.

This really is a bit of a crapshoot for Missouri and an opportunity for the Vols to get some cheap, easy points or field position.

4. Mizzou vs. the Hangover. Obviously this is an intangibles thing, and as a stat-happy guy, I'm supposed to frown on intangibles, but ... they exist. You have a different team each week; if this week's version of Missouri is flat and sloppy, the Tigers could easily lose. But if the Tigers really have bounced back, if they come to the table with fire and precision, they will win and win easily. That's certainly what the numbers think will happen, projecting something in the neighborhood of Mizzou 37, Vols 14. Tennessee is pretty decent, but Missouri has been better in 2013 despite, yes, an easier overall schedule. Hopefully the Tigers play better on Saturday, too.

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