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Missouri at Tennessee: The Volunteer defense is for real

Tennessee's defense ranks 19th in Def. F/+ and features playmakers at defensive end, linebacker, and cornerback. The potential loss of LB A.J. Johnson to suspension will hurt, but only so much.

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The Tennessee offense certainly has potential, especially now that Joshua Dobbs is running the show. But the most problematic (for the opposition) unit the Vols have is on the other side of the ball. The Vols rank 19th in Def. F/+, best of any defense Missouri has faced this season. The Tigers have faced two top-30 defenses -- No. 20 Florida and No. 27 Georgia -- and were held to 2.4 and 3.4 yards per play, respectively.

Yes, there's context involved there: Darius White was hurt for most of those two games, Mizzou's offense supposedly packed it in with the huge lead against UF, etc. Still, that's not a particularly good look. And while star linebacker A.J. Johnson may indeed be suspended for the contest, he's not the sole reason why the Vols' D is so good. It starts up front.

Corey Vereen (6'2, 253, So.) (17.5 tackles, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FR, 3 QB hurries)
LaTroy Lewis (6'4, 257, So.) (7.0 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 QB hurry)

Jordan Williams (6'5, 284, Sr.) (14.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU, 1 QB hurry)
Dimarya Mixon (6'3, 282, Fr.) (4.0 tackles, 1 QB hurry)

Danny O'Brien (6'2, 286, So.) (11.0 tackles, 2 TFL)
Owen Williams (6'2, 288, Jr.) (12.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU)

Derek Barnett (6'3, 267, Fr.) (46.5 tackles, 18 TFL, 9 sacks, 1 FR, 5 QB hurries)
Dewayne Hendrix (6'4, 275, Fr.) (1.5 tackles)

Tennessee ranks 24th in Adj. Line Yards and fifth in Adj. Sack Rate. For perspective, Mizzou ranks 17th and ninth. Johnson has certainly played a role in that, but the tackles have done a solid job of occupying blockers, and Derek Barnett has been a revelation as a freshman. Mizzou recruited the true freshman hard but couldn't convince him to leave the state, and wow, has been a gem, making plays against both run and pass. False starts aside, Mitch Morse and Taylor Chappell have done a pretty good job of keeping heat off of Maty Mauk; since they missed out on facing Myles Garrett last week, this will be their biggest test.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin (6'1, 230, So.) (62.5 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FR)
Cortez McDowell (6'1, 215, Fr.) (11.0 tackles, 1 FR)

A.J. Johnson (6'2, 245, Sr.) (79.5 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF, 5 QB hurries) -- POSSIBLY SUSPENDED
Jakob Johnson (6'4, 240, Fr.) (5.0 tackles)

Curt Maggitt (6'3, 251, Jr.) (29.0 tackles, 11 TFL, 8 sacks, 1 FF, 2 QB hurries)
Chris Weatherd (6'4, 225, Jr.) (8.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU)

As good as Barnett has been, the defense has been run by three incredibly active linebackers. Reeves-Martin, Johnson, and Maggitt have combined for 29 TFLs, 12 sacks, and four passes defensed. They are active and aggressive, but if Johnson is indeed out, it will be interesting to see how aggressive they feel they can be with a true freshman in his place. Even with only Maggitt and Reeves-Maybin, this is a pretty havocky (new word!) unit, but Johnson's the quarterback, and his absence could hurt a decent amount in run defense.

Cameron Sutton (6'1, 190, So.) (29.0 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 INT, 8 PBU, 1 FF)
Emmanuel Moseley (5'11, 178, Fr.) (13.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 5 PBU)

Brian Randolph (6'0, 209, Jr.) (65.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 1 QB hurry)
Todd Kelly Jr. (6'0, 203, Fr.) (19.0 tackles, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FR)

LaDarrell McNeil (6'1, 215, Jr.) (40.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 QB hurry)
Devaun Swafford (5'11, 184, So.) (3.5 tackles)

Justin Coleman (5'10, 188, Sr.) (29.0 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 INT, 3 PBU, 2 QB hurries)
Michael Williams (5'11, 177, So.) (20.5 tackles) -- POSSIBLY SUSPENDED

It's kind of a chicken-and-egg situation here; the secondary is making a lot of plays in part because of the pass rush, but the pass rush is working in part because the secondary is aggressive and exciting. UT's starting cornerbacks have combined for eight TFLs, six INTs, and 11 PBUs; that should tell you how close they play to the line of scrimmage. Aggression can backfire, and Tennessee ranks only 63rd in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of an offense's "successful" plays), so if there's a breakdown, it could be a pretty big one. But there aren't many breakdowns. This might be the best defense Missouri has faced this year, and even without Johnson, it's a really, really good one.

Special Teams

Matt Darr (6'1, 220, Sr.) (63 punts, 41.4 average, 26 fair caught, 23 inside 20)

Aaron Medley (6'2, 181, Fr.) (32-33 PAT, 15-16 FG under 40, 1-6 FG over 40; 46 kickoffs, 60.3 average, 10 touchbacks)
George Bullock (6'0, 209, So.) (10 kickoffs, 60.9 average, 2 touchbacks)

Cameron Sutton (6'1, 190, So.) (11 PR, 6.5 average)
Jacob Carter (6'0, 191, Sr.) (7 PR, 5.9 average)

Evan Berry (5'11, 199, Fr.) (9 KR, 31.2 average)
Malik Foreman (5'10, 190, So.) (3 KR, 17.3 average)

If Missouri wins, it will again be a defense, special teams, and Little Things™ effort. Tennessee ranks only 57th in Special Teams F/+; kick coverage has been pretty good, but everything else is mediocre to above average. The Vols do give you return opportunities, which could mean a big play for Marcus Murphy, but they need to get inside the 20 to feel good about field goal attempts, and the return game has been all-or-nothing (and mostly nothing). The UT defense is the real deal, but Mizzou can potentially make up ground with its own defense and with the 10-15% of the game that will be determined by special teams.