In a three-week span, Mizzou will have played Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, the three SEC East favorites. What follows on November 2 is perhaps the most important game of the year. Whether the Tigers are 3-5 and desperate for a win to salvage bowl eligibility or 6-2 and looking to keep moving toward what could be a hell of a bowl game, they will need to beat Tennessee no matter the goals.
Both Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane (suspended for spring but supposedly returning) have showed decent between-the-tackles abilities; plus, Lane in particular has shown at least a little bit of open-field ability. He's also one of the best pass-catching running backs in the country. His return would give the running back unit an enormous boost.
Both backs had it pretty easy last year, however, running behind a line that gave them quite a few opportunities. There were issues with stuffs (negative plays on the ground), and the line's sack rate was done favors by Tyler Bray's throwaways (he was quick to throw the ball into the stands if pressure started coming and receivers weren't open).
But this was still one of the conference's better offensive lines; in 2013, the line returns six players with starting experience (including four seniors) and 124 career starts. All-conference guard Dallas Thomas is gone, but this will still be one of the best lines in the SEC. And if you've got to start an unproven quarterback with unproven receivers, a quality line can do you some enormous favors.
Again, if you're an incoming coach, you have to love it when the previous coaching staff(s) recruited relatively well. After a while, a four-star rating ceases to mean anything, but players like Johnson, McCullers and Smith have certainly shown four-star potential. Plus, others like corner Justin Coleman and LaDarrell McNeil have begun to compile a decent amount of experience, and a new load of four-star freshmen and redshirt freshmen enter the rotation this fall. Jancek and company still have to figure out how to coax potential into production, but the upside is there.
Of course, upside often presents itself in the form of disruptive stats ... and Tennessee just didn't have many of those in 2012. Only one player had more than seven tackles for loss, only one had more than two sacks (Darrington Sentimore, who is now gone), and only one defensed more than six passes (safety Byron Moore, who is probably not going to have more INTs than PBUs in 2013). Jancek's Cincy defenses were reasonably effective (29th in Def. F/+ in 2012 despite, obviously, lesser recruiting rankings) and active (ninth in passes defensed last year, 28th in forced fumbles, 54th in tackles for loss). If this defense finds a higher level of (successful) aggression, its ceiling starts to match its recruiting rankings.
Experience is a double-edged sword, however. Both the offensive and defensive lines are loaded with seniors; if other units (quarterback, receiver, defensive back) hold the Vols back, and they don't improve much in 2013, then 2014 could see another sideways step as the pass offense and defense improve and the lines start from scratch.
Honestly, this should be a pretty good team. The passing game is cause for alarm, and until we see the defense playing at a more aggressive level (and doing it relatively successfully), we don't know that it will. But if you look at players and units as blank canvases, you have to like the potential just about everywhere. The offensive line will be good to great, the front seven should conform well to Jancek's 4-3, the running backs will be competent to good, and the secondary, if healthy, should improve. Butch Jones has had a very positive offseason in terms of P.R., and he should find a lot to like about the personnel he inherits.
But will it be enough? Will Tennessee's strength in the trenches overcome its extreme inexperience elsewhere? The Vols did go 0-3 versus the three teams referenced as the "middle games" above -- will they improve enough to offset the fact that those three times will potentially improve as well?
Tennessee's biggest advantage
In last year's game, Mizzou sacked Tyler Bray once in 55 pass attempts and was rather generously credited with five quarterback hurries (two from Shane Ray). Tennessee's line was able to quite easily protect the quarterback against a line that featured Sheldon Richardson. Granted, we're all hoping for The Leap from Kony Ealy, but the odds are good that a line featuring six players with starting experience and, at that point, more than 10 combined seasons of starting experience overall, will be able to fend off Mizzou's defensive line pretty easily.
Mizzou's biggest advantage
For this week's game, Tennessee's starting receivers are a sophomore who caught 13 passes last year (Pig Howard), a true freshman (Marquez North), and either a redshirt freshman (Jason Croom) or a true freshman (Jason Smith). For all we know, North could immediately become Justin Hunter, and Howard could transform into Cordarrelle Patterson. But they probably won't. Even though Mizzou will struggle to get pressure up front, there's nothing saying the Vols will be able to make the Tigers pay for that with big plays.
(And on the other end of the ball, this will likely be the worst defense Mizzou has faced since Arkansas State. There is experience and potential there, but let's just say they have some questions to answer between now and November.)
Again, this is a must-win for Mizzou no matter what the goals and expectations are. And I expect Tennessee to be a little bit volatile in terms of mixing big plays with dumb mistakes. It's going to take Butch Jones a little while to craft whatever he's going to craft, and I'm seeing a transition season from the Vols this year. So give me something like Mizzou 34, Tennessee 21.