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Missouri at Tennessee preview: Line play will likely determine the winner

Both defenses have rather significant advantages over both offenses when Missouri faces Tennessee, and a single big play or two could make a world of difference. But if you watch the line play in the first quarter, you'll probably figure out who will be making the plays in the fourth.

Bill Carter

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Missouri at Tennessee

Record CFP
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Missouri 8-2 20 37 74 15 22
Tennessee 5-5
38 62 19 57

Tennessee 14, Missouri 10 (win probability: Missouri 39%)

Missouri and Tennessee combined to score 84 points last Saturday, but neither were facing defenses nearly as good as what they'll be facing tomorrow night at Neyland Stadium.

If tempo and turnovers and return touchdowns and huge field position swings get involved, then the collective score could certainly start to add up. But the defenses hold most of the key advantages in this one. Turning scoring opportunities into points will be even more important than normal because there simply might not be many opportunities.

F/+ Win Probability (remaining games)
Arkansas (57%, down 7% from last time
at Tennessee (39%, down 1% from last time)

Missouri basically did precisely what the F/+ ratings expected last week (albeit with more points scored and allowed) and therefore didn't change much in the rankings. Arkansas went up a bit following a strong performance against LSU, and Tennessee stayed about the same after killing a Kentucky team it was projected to kill. So for the first time in a while, there weren't any serious shifts in win probability from last week to this week. Missouri has only about a 22% chance of going 2-0 in this home stretch, but a win on Saturday would bump that probability over 50 percent.

When Tennessee Has The Ball…

NOTE: Below, I'm using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

ONE MORE NOTE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
UT Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 53.1% (100th)

S&P+ 110.7 (39th) 118.7 (21st) push
Success Rate 45.4% (84th) 44.6% (50th) MU
IsoPPP 0.70 (96th) 0.67 (28th) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 46.7% (69th) 41.5% (25th) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.61 (100th) 0.66 (66th) MU
Passing Success Rate 43.9% (88th) 49.4% (98th) push
Passing IsoPPP 0.81 (95th) 0.70 (6th) MU big

Looking at full-season averages only means so much when an offense changed quarterbacks three games ago and saw an upgrade in overall play. Since Joshua Dobbs took over, Tennessee has rushed 56.6% of the time, which would rank 81st in the country instead of 100th. It's still a pass-first approach compared to the norm, but it's more balanced toward the run.

Meanwhile, the Vols have rushed an incredible 46.4% of the time on passing downs, which would rank 11th. The Tennessee offensive approach has basically skewed from Florida State's to Ohio State's. And thanks to the extra runner (Dobbs), the approach is paying off.

Targets & Catches
Pig Howard: 30 targets, 17 catches (57%), 116 yards (3.9 per target)
Josh Malone: 28 targets, 15 catches (54%), 130 yards (4.6)
Marquez North: 25 targets, 14 catches (56%), 132 yards (5.3), 1 TD
Von Pearson: 20 targets, 16 catches (80%), 149 yards (7.5), 2 TD
Jalen Hurd (RB): 16 targets, 14 catches (88%), 81 yards (5.1)
Ethan Wolf (TE): 15 targets, 14 catches (93%), 151 yards (10.1)
Josh Smith: 9 targets, 8 catches (89%), 74 yards (8.2)
Johnathon Johnson: 8 targets, 5 catches (63%), 82 yards (10.3), 1 TD
Marlin Lane (RB): 7 targets, 5 catches (71%), 43 yards (6.1)

As mentioned yesterday, the Vols certainly spread the love around. Part of that is by necessity -- North and Pearson in particular have been held back with injury -- but part is also because, as you see above, no go-to guy has emerged. Tennessee wants to throw quickly to offset a more physical (in theory) run game, but those passes don't go very far. Howard, Malone, and North are averaging an incredibly low 4.6 yards per target on standard down. Sometimes the short pass is seen as an extension of the run game; that's not a very good run game extension.

Still, it keeps defenses honest and gives the run game a slightly higher chance of taking root. The line stinks regardless, and that really isn't going to change at this point, but a quick passing game is a good way to work around that. It would just be more helpful if those passes actually went anywhere.

Passing Downs
UT Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 26.2% (99th)

S&P+ 113.9 (39th) 151.5 (7th) MU
Success Rate 30.6% (70th) 21.3% (6th) MU big
IsoPPP 1.13 (75th) 1.00 (26th) MU
Rushing Success Rate 28.3% (66th) 20.7% (22nd) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.86 (106th) 0.90 (21st) MU big
Passing Success Rate 31.4% (72nd) 21.5% (5th) MU big
Passing IsoPPP 1.21 (49th) 1.04 (46th) push

Targets & Catches
Pig Howard: 30 targets, 22 catches (73%), 328 yards (10.9), 1 TD
Marquez North: 28 targets, 16 catches (57%), 188 yards (6.7), 3 TD
Josh Malone: 16 targets, 7 catches (44%), 97 yards (6.1), 1 TD
Jalen Hurd (RB): 16 targets, 13 catches (81%), 96 yards (6.0), 1 TD
Jason Croom: 15 targets, 11 catches (73%), 126 yards (8.4), 1 TD
Ethan Wolf (TE): 14 targets, 7 catches (50%), 52 yards (3.7)
Von Pearson: 11 targets, 9 catches (82%), 115 yards (10.5), 2 TD
Daniel Helm (TE): 7 targets, 4 catches (57%), 28 yards (4.0)

Again, here's where Tennessee's approach has completely changed. The Vols' run rate has basically doubled since Dobbs took over; that means a lot more designed runs, and it means quite a bit of effective scrambling by Dobbs, who is averaging more than six yards per carry overall.

The goal here is obvious: keep Dobbs from having to pass in too many awkward down-and-distance situations and keep the defense close enough to the line of scrimmage to perhaps open up the deeper passing game. Howard, Malone, and Pearson are averaging 14.2 yards per catch on passing downs, which suggests it sometimes works.

By the numbers, among previous opponents only Alabama has a better defense than the one Tennessee will face on Saturday. If Missouri's defensive front manhandles Tennessee's line, then Dobbs will have to make a ton of great individual plays to keep the ball moving. If the Tigers don't win this matchup pretty decisively, however, the tide could (and probably will) turn.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense UT Defense Advantage
SD % Run 59.3% (62nd)

S&P+ 101.5 (64th) 122.3 (12th) UT big
Success Rate 47.9% (57th) 42.5% (23rd) UT
IsoPPP 0.75 (72nd) 0.82 (102nd) MU
Rushing Success Rate 51.0% (35th) 43.3% (40th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.62 (89th) 0.74 (99th) push
Passing Success Rate 43.4% (91st) 41.0% (25th) UT big
Passing IsoPPP 0.96 (47th) 0.96 (92nd) MU

I noticed Missouri doing something pretty unique (for the Tigers) on Saturday. Mizzou threw the ball 20 times in 37 first-down opportunities, a paltry run rate of just 46%. But Mizzou also ran the ball 52% of the time on passing downs. The Tigers seemed to know that if a first-down pass fell incomplete, they could make up the difference on the ground on second-and-10, so they tried to get Maty Mauk into a rhythm.

That's not a luxury Mizzou will have on Saturday. You're not going to be able to count on gaining six or seven rushing yards on second-and-10, so you better be minding your Ps and Qs on first-and-10 against an aggressive Tennessee defense.

Tennessee ranks 23rd in standard downs success rate but 102nd in IsoPPP. That means that the Vols don't allow many successful plays, but the ones they allow are huge. I don't really know what that means for Mizzou's offensive approach. Missouri's run game has been efficient and completely lacking in explosiveness against teams not named Indiana or Texas A&M, so if you're looking for cracks in the dam, you might have to pass. Only, Missouri's still only decent at passing.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 57 targets, 36 catches (63%), 420 yards (7.4 per target), 5 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 23 targets, 14 catches (61%), 205 yards (8.9), 4 TD
Darius White: 23 targets, 14 catches (61%), 169 yards (7.4), 3 TD
Marcus Murphy: 18 targets, 13 catches (72%), 102 yards (5.7)
Sean Culkin (TE): 17 targets, 7 catches (41%), 55 yards (3.2), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 7 targets, 5 catches, 56 yards (8.0)

Before his injury, Darius White's biggest impact for this team came in his ability to go up the seam. He is the fastest of Missouri's receivers, and Mizzou has been desperate for any sort of field-stretching presence. If he is able to scare the defense deep just once a quarter or so, it could make a significant impact.

I wrote that in last week's preview. As it turned out, White had a different impact on the passing game last week. For so many games, Mauk was getting into major trouble when he'd scramble around looking for a receiver: there were no open receivers. But White was able to find space. So was Hunt. They both caught huge passes to keep the chains moving and give the offense more of an opportunity to find a rhythm.

I really don't know how Mizzou plans to attack this defense, but in his first game back, White actually helped Missouri's efficiency significantly, not its explosiveness. (And as you see from the above numbers, the passing efficiency could use all the help it can get.) If he wants to bust up the seam once or twice tomorrow, however, that wouldn't be the worst idea in the world.

Passing Downs
MU Offense UT Defense Advantage
PD % Run 36.7% (33rd)

S&P+ 86.8 (104th) 138.6 (11th) UT big
Success Rate 31.6% (55th) 28.9% (55th) push
IsoPPP 1.02 (101st) 0.89 (4th) UT big
Rushing Success Rate 31.9% (43rd) 27.4% (69th) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.95 (91st) 0.72 (6th) UT  big
Passing Success Rate 31.5% (70th) 29.7% (42nd) UT
Passing IsoPPP 1.05 (90th) 0.96 (24th) UT big

Yeah, um, avoid these downs, Missouri.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 27 targets, 16 catches (59%), 275 yards (10.2 per target), 3 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 21 targets, 12 catches (57%), 157 yards (7.5), 1 TD
Marcus Murphy: 14 targets, 7 catches (50%), 41 yards (5.9), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 12 targets, 6 catches (50%), 70 yards (5.8)
Darius White: 11 targets, 9 catches (82%), 125 yards (11.4), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 9 targets, 4 catches (44%), -2 yards (-0.2)

As far as we know, Derek Barnett isn't injured like A&M's Myles Garrett was last week. Obviously the loss of leading linebacker A.J. Johnson hurts the Vols, especially considering how good UT's big-play prevention numbers have been here (particularly against the run). He's a key to their pursuit near the line of scrimmage. But they still have two other particularly active linebackers, and they have Barnett. That means Mauk's fleeing the pocket and running around probably isn't going to work out very well. Mizzou will likely have to succeed with quick passes (not a Mauk forte, though I think his timing on slants and whatnot was better last week) and as much running as possible.


So here are the key factors:

1. Line play

Using the overall F/+ stats, Tennessee's defensive advantage over Missouri's offense is bigger than Missouri's over Tennessee, especially considering how much better the Vols have looked with Dobbs behind center. But dialing down to the unit matchups, Missouri might have the single biggest advantage of the game: its defensive line vs. Tennessee's young, banged up offensive line. Mizzou is as explosive and disruptive up front as it was last year, and the Tigers have shown remarkable discipline as well, not getting swayed by misdirection or sucked into over-pursuit. A&M clearly thought it could bait Missouri into over-pursuit at times last week, but the Aggies really could not.

As I wrote above, if Mizzou's defensive line is particularly disruptive, it will force Dobbs to make not a few plays with his mobility and improvisation abilities, but a ton of plays. He's been great. Can he be that great? And can Missouri's own offensive line play well enough to not just give back any advantages is defensive line creates?

Key Stats: Line Yards and Sack Rates.

2. Big Plays

Tennessee neither makes many nor allows many. Ditto Missouri. This game isn't going to be played at a breakneck pace, and there will likely be quite a few punts. A single big play could make a world of difference.

Key Stat: IsoPPP.

3. Avoid Passing Downs

I thought this was going to be of vital importance last week until we found out that Garrett was hurt. A&M's defensive front was a shell of its (mediocre) self, and Mizzou was actually able to carve out more success on passing downs than it had since September.

That probably won't be the case this week, even in A.J. Johnson's absence. So yeah. Avoid them. And force Tennessee into them. Easy, right?

Key Stat: Leverage Rate.

4. Little Things™

It's important every week.

Field Position Finishing Drives
Avg. FP
Avg. FP
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp.
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp
Missouri 30.6 (55th) 28.7 (44th) +1.9 (45th) 4.8 (32nd) 4.1 (44th) +0.7 (28th)
Tennessee 33.1 (16th) 28.4 (35th) +4.7 (20th) 4.4 (75th) 4.7 (99th) -0.3 (89th)

Tennessee is quite good at the field position battle, which is worrisome considering how bad Missouri was at it last week. That was at least a little bit of an outlier, but we'll see how much.

Meanwhile, even with last week's trouble at finishing drives, it's still an overall team strength for Mizzou this year. It very much is not for Tennessee. Win these battles, and you can probably afford a slip up in at least one of the three above.

Key stats: points per scoring opportunity and average starting field position.


I'm really struggling to get a read on this one, but I think we'll have a pretty good idea of how this is going to play out in the first quarter. Just watch the lines. It's hard to negate advantages there once they're created, and if one team is winning the trench battle in the first 15 minutes, odds are good it will be doing so in the final 15, too.

I realize ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ isn't much of a prediction, but that's where I'm at. If you're an optimist or a pessimist, both teams have enough advantages to feed your instincts. My gut says Tennessee has a slight edge here, but that might just be because that's what the numbers see. This is a "one or two plays will make a world of difference" game either way. We'll see who makes those plays.