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5 thoughts about Tennessee, Missouri’s 11th opponent

By the time Mizzou visits Knoxville, Tennessee’s season will have either become a massive disappointment, or the Vols will have already delivered the results they’re supposed to deliver.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

So now comes the final stage of Missouri’s 2016 season. By now, we’ll have had a pretty clear glimpse of not only the strengths and weaknesses, but also the remaining goals of this Tiger squad. Yes, they could still pull a bit of an upset in the home finale against Arkansas, but S&P+ says whatever Missouri is going to win in 2016, the Tigers will have won that many by the time they head to Knoxville.

Still, a) we should look at the matchups Mizzou will likely face at Neyland Stadium, and b) we’ll still be talking ourselves into potential success there, being that the Tigers are 2-0 in Knoxville since moving to the SEC.

Here are some of the more Mizzou-relevant tidbits from my 2016 Tennessee preview for SBN.

1. The offense was desperate to take its foot off the gas

Veteran coordinator Mike DeBord proved solid at game plans and early success. The Vols averaged 6.3 yards per play in the first quarter, with a 65 percent completion rate and 5.5 yards per rush. After the first quarter: 5.3 yards per play, a 57 percent completion rate, 4.4 yards per carry. Predictability beset the play-calling, which put a lot of pressure on the defense.

The Vols led Oklahoma 17-0 in the first quarter and lost. They led Florida 27-14 in the fourth quarter and lost. They led Arkansas 14-0 in the first quarter and lost. They led Alabama 14-13 in the fourth quarter and lost. That could have been randomness and bad luck ... and it could have been part of the formula.

In three years under Jones, they are 3-0 in one-possession games against teams with losing records and 3-9 in those games against teams with winning records.

DeBord proved he can design a good game plan, but that almost made it more maddening when the Vols so clearly went into an offensive shell. It happened against Missouri, too -- granted, once they had scored 10 points against the Tigers, the game was effectively over, but after scoring on three of their first four possessions, they did so only twice in their final nine.

They let Mizzou stay close enough that it would have taken only one fluky bounce or big play to make things very tense. They were able wait out bad teams and usually win anyway (though they indeed nearly blew the SC game), but they had no killer instinct. Both players and coaches need to develop one if they are to live up to hype.

Georgia v Tennessee Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

2. Variety is your friend

Jalen Hurd is basically a defensive end playing running back, and when given a chance to run downhill, he can do some nasty things. Fellow back Alvin Kamara is frequently used in dump-off situations on the perimeter, enough to pull off the rate "No. 2 rusher, No. 3 receiver" combination. Josh Malone and Josh Smith are decent bailout options and helped Tennessee rank 16th in Passing Downs S&P+.

Built around these pillars, the Vols had one of the best first-quarter offenses in the country.

You need a Plan B, though. Hurd averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the first quarter and 4.3 thereafter. Dobbs' passer rating was over 135 in the first and third quarters and under 121 in the second and fourth. Kamara caught 22 passes in the first and third quarters and 11 in the second and fourth. Leading receiver Von Pearson caught 27 passes in the first half and 11 in the second.

I guess this is more of a 1a than a 2.

3. Butch Jones did replace one coordinator, though

It was perhaps the wrong one, but he still brought in an excellent new DC.

Bob Shoop mostly thrived for James Franklin at both Vanderbilt and Penn State, and at both stops he generated major progress in his first year -- Vandy went from 62nd to sixth in 2011, and PSU went from 39th to fourth in 2014. You can only improve so much from 17th, but you can still improve.

Shoop's first Tennessee D will have all the experience he could want, and if he's able to find a pass-rushing complement for junior Derek Barnett -- Barnett had 10 sacks, but only one other player had more than 3.5 -- and figure out how to prevent big pass plays (typically a strength of his defenses), then that could push the Vols toward the Def. S&P+ top 10.

One they had leveraged opponents into passing downs last year, they were tremendous at closing out drives. But they struggled at time to keep offenses (not named Mizzou) off-schedule. The former should still be the case thanks to Shoop’s defensive principles, a strong pass rush, etc. We’ll see how much Shoop can change the latter.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

4. Havoc wasn’t Tennessee’s friend

Tennessee's secondary ranked a respectable 31st in DB Havoc Rate last year, thanks mostly to the work of two aggressive corners, Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley. (They also gave up a few big gainers as well.) The front seven, however, was lacking in disruptiveness.

The Vols ranked just 51st in passing downs sack rate and 70th in stuff rate; Barnett was kind of a one-note end (10 sacks, but only 2.5 non-sack tackles for loss), while Corey Vereen was stronger against the run (6 non-sack TFLs) but didn't offer much in the pass rush (3.5 sacks).

If Shoop can unearth another top-notch play-maker to work with Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, that could be too much for even good offenses to handle.

This is yet another game in which an improved run game could benefit Missouri dramatically. The Vols were better against pass than run in 2015, in part because they couldn’t pierce the line of scrimmage quite enough. Again, we’ll see how much that changes.

5. A broad range of outcomes

There are only four projected top-30 teams on the schedule.

Close the deal against two of them, and you're in position to win 10 games for the first time since 2007. Do it against three, and you're maybe at 11 for the first time since 2001.

Win totals aside, the primary goal for UT is reaching its first SEC title game in nine years. Even if they clear the Florida hurdle (the Vols haven't beaten the Gators since 2004), and I assume they will, they face a massive Athens battle against a Georgia that is basically a quarterback and a couple of linemen away from playing at a top-10 level itself. Lose that, and the Vols might have to beat Alabama to keep East hopes alive.

A 10-game sample can take you in a lot of different directions. By the time Missouri comes to Knoxville, the Vols could be as psychologically fragile as ever, having once again failed to clear the hurdles that have tripped them in the past. Or, they could be on a massive roll, having finally cleared those hurdles. A lot of that will be determined by the trip to Athens.

Per S&P+, this is the second-least likely win on the Mizzou schedule.

S&P+ projection: Vols by 15.3 (Mizzou win probability: 19%).