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TENNESSEE AT MISSOURI PREVIEW: Do the Tigers have another step forward in them?

Derrick Forsythe / Rock M Nation

We're caught in an interesting place as fans right now. The future tense is getting a good portion of our attention -- Who will Mizzou hire to replace Gary Pinkel? What changes will the new guy bring to the table? -- but the present tense still brings with it plenty of consequences. If Missouri beats Tennessee on Saturday, the Tigers will clinch a bowl berth and will send Gary Pinkel off into the sunset in a 13th game in an exotic locale. If the Tigers lose to both the Vols and Arkansas next week (as they are projected to do), the Pinkel era ends in eight days.

S&P+ projects a 28-17 win for Tennessee and gives Mizzou only about a 27% chance of pulling off the win. Those odds are similar to what we saw for BYU last week, and we know that recent trends point to a better offensive performance for the Tigers than what the full-season numbers might be seeing. Still, that gives you a good idea for the odds at hand.

When Tennessee has the ball...

Standard Downs

UT Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 106.0 50 119.5 12 MU
Standard Downs Success Rate 46.7% 66 41.9% 28 MU
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.02 100 0.91 2 MU big
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.93 61 2.41 16 MU
SD Sack Rate 5.4% 71 5.6% 46 MU

Tennessee's offense is absurdly conservative on standard downs, really to its own detriment. Butch Jones hired Mike Debord, an old, ollllld-school pro-style coach known mostly for his work at the Brian Griese/Tom Brady era (he was Michigan's OL coach from 1992-96 and offensive coordinator from 1997-99). That he has UT running the ball 67 percent of the time on standard downs (26th in the country) isn't surprising. With his background, and with Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara in the backfield, it would be shocking if UT didn't run the ball a ton.

What is surprising, though, is what happens when UT passes. A run-heavy approach means play-action opportunities, right? Receivers are infrequently targeted but averaging quite a few yards per catch, right? Wrong.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Alvin Kamara (RB): 24 targets, 19 catches, 141 yards (5.9), 2 TD
Von Pearson (WR): 22 targets, 15 catches, 145 yards (6.6)
Josh Malone (WR): 22 targets, 11 catches, 129 yards (5.9)
Josh Smith (WR): 16 targets, 8 catches, 102 yards (6.4)
Ethan Wolf (TE): 13 targets, 10 catches, 143 yards (11.0), 1 TD
Jalen Hurd (RB): 11 targets, 9 catches, 49 yards (4.5)
Preston Williams (WR): 10 targets, 5 catches, 101 yards (10.1), 1 TD
Jauan Jennings (WR): 8 targets, 7 catches, 53 yards (6.6)
Marquez North (WR): 7 targets, 3 catches, 29 yards (4.1)

The most frequent targets on standard downs are the No. 2 running back (yards per catch: 7.4) and two receivers who stay near the line of scrimmage (combined yards per catch: 10.5). Occasionally the tight end leaks open, Tracey Wistrom-style, but for the most part, Tennessee's standard downs passing is both conservative and ineffective. You have the drawbacks of a run-and-play-action system (combined catch rate for the top four WRs listed above: 56%) without any of the payoff.

What makes this even more confusing is that Josh Dobbs is actually a pretty damn good passer on passing downs.

Passing Downs

UT Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 128.0 13 114.7 30 UT
Passing Downs Success Rate 36.6% 21 28.1% 46 UT
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.78 59 1.49 12 MU
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.42 47 2.64 21 MU
PD Sack Rate 7.6% 68 10.4% 22 MU

Either via handoff or Dobbs' legs, UT still runs the ball 33% of the time on passing downs (61st), but the Vols look downfield with the passing game quite a bit on passing downs, and it often works. Josh Malone, Josh Smith, and Von Pearson average just 11.1 yards per catch and 6.3 yards per target on standard downs ... and 14.3 yards per catch and 10.1 yards per target on passing downs, when passing is supposed to be harder.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
Josh Malone (WR): 22 targets, 16 catches, 224 yards (10.2)
Josh Smith (WR): 17 targets, 11 catches, 155 yards (9.1), 2 TD
Von Pearson (WR): 15 targets, 11 catches, 164 yards (10.9)
Ethan Wolf (TE): 15 targets, 10 catches, 128 yards (8.5), 1 TD
Jalen Hurd (RB): 12 targets, 6 catches, 109 yards (9.1), 1 TD
Jauan Jennings (WR): 11 targets, 6 catches, 89 yards (8.1)
Alvin Kamara (RB): 10 targets, 6 catches, 56 yards (5.6)
Alex Ellis (TE): 10 targets, 2 catches, 29 yards (2.9)

I understand that conservatism has its benefits. As fans, we can easily talk about wanting aggression, but aggression often fails miserably. In theory, playing things as safe as UT does on standard downs means you keep the clock moving and avoid drastic mistakes, therefore making sure your defense is fresh and given good field position.

But while Tennessee is doing great things in the field position game, the returns for both the offense and defense diminish drastically as the game wears on. The UT offense ranks 7th in Q1 S&P+ but ranks just 68th, 59th, and 90th per quarter after that. The UT defense ranks fifth in the first quarter ... 23rd and 27th in Q2 and Q3 ... and 70th in Q4. Leaning on Josh Dobbs to make plays on passing downs works relatively frequently for this offense, but the play-calling and execution are resulting in tons of passing downs. Conservatism is not a good look for the Vols. (And hopefully it remains that way.)

When Mizzou has the ball...

Standard Downs

Mizzou Offense UT Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 80.8 123 112.2 28 UT big
Standard Downs Success Rate 36.0% 125 43.0% 40 UT big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.05 89 1.13 84 push
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.14 126 2.66 35 UT big
SD Sack Rate 7.1% 102 4.6% 78 UT

These previews have been awfully repetitive this year, haven't they? Mizzou's defense derives advantages in most categories, then Mizzou's opponent's defense derives advantages in virtually every category. It's no different here. Tennessee's defense has been glitchier and more banged up than expected this year, but the Vols defend the run well on standard downs and the pass well on passing downs.

That makes Missouri's approach a bit of a question mark. The Tigers leaned heavily on the run against BYU, and while it only paid off occasionally, it did pay off. And it created enough of an identity to perhaps help the passing game out a bit. That Tiger running backs rushed nearly 50 times and Drew Lock had his best per-pass average as a starter probably wasn't a coincidence. But UT's run defense is pretty strong on first-and-10, so does Mizzou get tempted to come out of the gates firing? That's a pretty common approach -- opponents are running only 57% of the time on standard downs against the Vols (89th). Does Mizzou feel confident enough in the run (or do the Tigers lack confidence in the pass) to stick with that approach?

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 30 targets, 14 catches, 203 yards (6.8), 1 TD
Nate Brown (WR): 29 targets, 18 catches, 190 yards (6.6), 3 TD
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 19 targets, 11 catches, 158 yards (8.3), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 14 targets, 10 catches, 74 yards (5.3)
Jason Reese (TE): 12 targets, 4 catches, 28 yards (2.3)
Emanuel Hall (WR): 8 targets, 4 catches, 20 yards (2.5)
Ish Witter (RB): 8 targets, 7 catches, 104 yards (13.0)
Keyon Dilosa (WR): 8 targets, 8 catches, 42 yards (5.3)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 7 targets, 5 catches, 17 yards (2.4)

The H-receiver position occupied by Nate Brown and Cam Hilton was quite successful against BYU last week. I guess we'll see if that's a trend or a one-off tomorrow.

Passing Downs

Mizzou Offense UT Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 89.0 102 127.0 13 UT big
Passing Downs Success Rate 24.7% 113 26.2% 28 UT big
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.64 91 1.73 57 UT
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.64 29 3.27 71 MU
PD Sack Rate 7.8% 75 7.0% 73 push

UT's pass rush isn't quite what it was supposed to be this year, but the pass defense is still quite sound. Then again, so is BYU's, and Missouri had its best passing downs performance of the season, with a success rate near 40%. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 26 targets, 12 catches, 98 yards (3.8), 2 TD
Nate Brown (WR): 22 targets, 7 catches, 126 yards (5.7), 1 TD
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 21 targets, 6 catches, 37 yards (1.8)
Jason Reese (TE): 12 targets, 9 catches, 93 yards (7.8)
Ish Witter (RB): 11 targets, 7 catches, 42 yards (3.8)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 9 targets, 7 catches, 45 yards (5.0)
Emanuel Hall (WR): 8 targets, 4 catches, 44 yards (5.5)
Sean Culkin (TE): 7 targets, 6 catches, 65 yards (9.3), 1 TD

Good things happened at Arrowhead, but hoo boy, are these WR numbers still wretched. For the season, Mizzou's top three WRs have a passing downs catch rate of 36% and are averaging just 10.4 yards per catch. Ugly.

Mizzou found a way around that last week, however, mixing in screens (which Tennessee will probably now be expecting) and a couple of key passes to tight ends. Even if that's a little predictable this time, I would expect something of the same approach. It keeps Drew Lock upright, it gives him the sensation of putting the ball into a player's hands (something that was lacking there for a bit), and frankly, both Ish Witter and Tyler Hunt look more comfortable and effective catching passes out of the backfield than taking handoffs.

Five Keys

1. The trenches ... always the trenches

I'll just copy and paste from last week (and the week before, and the week before that).

Spoiler alert: This is probably going to be the No. 1 key all season. Missouri's offensive line was between bad and terrible for most of four games, and Mizzou had one of the least efficient offenses in the country. ... This key is for both sides of the ball, of course. If Mizzou's defensive line wins its battle, and the Missouri offensive line can either fight to a draw or only occasionally lose, the Tigers might be able to position themselves to win. But this has to be a net win for Mizzou, and preferably a large one.


2. Field position (and turnovers, and special teams)

Special teams is such a roll of the dice. It only makes up about 12-15% of a given game, and the good special teams units don't get that many opportunities to separate themselves from the bad ones -- a lot of kickoffs are touchbacks or returns to about the 20-25; a lot of punts are in the 40-yard range and are fair caught; a lot of field goals are high-percentage efforts that most college kickers will make; etc.

For Mizzou to win this game, this has to be a special teams-neutral game. Because if special teams matters, it's probably going in Tennessee's favor. The Vols rank second in the country in Brian Fremeau's special teams efficiency, and despite Corey Fatony and Andrew Baggett, Mizzou ranks 108th. UT's returns have been that good, and Mizzou's have been that bad.

Missouri probably isn't going to win the special teams and field position battles in this one, but it is imperative that the Tigers either break even or come close.

3. Finishing

Two things are nearly guaranteed in Missouri games: Mizzou's offense is going to be awful at finishing drives in the end zone, and Mizzou's opponent will be equally awful. Missouri averages 3.10 points per scoring opportunity, an egregious 127th in the country; Mizzou's defense allows just 3.27 points, third. Tennessee, meanwhile, is decent in both categories -- 46th on offense, 50th on defense.

Missouri's last two scoring opportunities against BYU (not including kneeldowns), however, both resulted in TDs. That was either an encouraging sign or pure randomness. Regardless, Mizzou faces more disadvantages than advantages overall, and doing a worse job of finishing drives probably won't work out very well for the Tigers on the scoreboard.

4. The first quarter

This is important for two distinct reasons:

A. It is Gary Pinkel's final Senior Night. Emotions will be off the charts, and that can work out in two distinct ways. Either Mizzou is particularly inspired and comes up with a couple of huge plays to build an early advantage before emotions return to their normal state, or they come out numb and flat and give up a couple of early big plays. It can go either way.

B. Tennessee is an elite team in the first quarter and very, very mortal thereafter. As mentioned above, the Vols rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense in the first quarter. They are outscoring opponents by 55 points in Q1 and by 111 in the first half. But the returns diminish. The offense has become staid and predictable, and UT's advantages tend to wither over the game's final 45 minutes. I guess this means that Missouri doesn't have to fear an early deficit, but if that early deficit doesn't even exist, that would be preferable, yes?

5. Big plays

Tennessee's offense doesn't generate a ton of them but can pull some rabbits out of its hat on passing downs. Meanwhile, Tennessee's defense is willing to risk some big plays in the name of efficiency. Whoever is able to break more big ones -- say, 15-yard rushes or 20-yard passes (or whatever your favorite definition is) -- is going to be in good shape.


Tennessee's a good team, one that has been better than Mizzou over the course of the season, and one that is a lot closer to 10-0 than, say, 4-6. The Vols have been their own close-game enemy at times, blowing leads in all four losses and very nearly doing the same against South Carolina two weeks ago. The longer Missouri can stay within reach, the more confident you have to feel.

Still, the odds are in UT's favor. As well as Missouri played against BYU last week, the Tigers will have to be even better on Saturday. Can they do it?