Derek Dooley knows the Tennessee football program well.
Dooley, Missouri’s current offensive coordinator, was the head coach of the Volunteers from 2010-12, where he could only compile a 15-21 record before getting fired prior to the regular season finale of the 2012 season.
Though the team and coaching staff are completely different than they were at the beginning of the decade, Tennessee is still in the spot it was when Dooley was at the helm: it’s a program still looking to get back to the highs it hasn’t seen in two decades.
After an embarrassing start to the season — losses against Georgia State and BYU to open up the year — the Volunteers have steadily improved over the year and match the Tigers with identical 5-5 records. Tennessee has also held four of its last five opponents to 21 points or less, which raises some concerns for a Missouri offense that has managed just 27 points total in its last four games (all losses).
“They’re just like all the other really good teams in the league,” Dooley said. “They’ve played great football these last four (or) five games. They settled in, they’ve kind of got their identity going and they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
Dooley actually had a successful first meeting with Tennessee as Missouri’s offensive coordinator in 2018, as the Tigers’ dominated the Volunteers in a 50-17 victory.
But that came with a Drew Lock-led attack that went into the game in the middle of perhaps its best offensive stretch of the season. Right now, Missouri is in the middle of its worst offensive stretch since 2015 and has shown no signs of becoming the team that scored 31-plus points in each of its first six games again.
“The starting point is, we’ve got to not beat ourselves,” Dooley said. “We continue to do some things that’s not characteristic of us, things we didn’t do earlier in the season. There were about five or six plays out there where we end drives, and it has nothing to do with the opponent we’re playing. (We are) just making bad decisions, not being very disciplined, controlling our emotions. Whatever it is.”
So how can this offense turn back into the version from the first half of the season?
There’s no easy answer to that question (and there might even be no answer at all), but one main aspect of the offense that still needs a rebound game is the one that’s been called out constantly over the last month: the offensive line.
The line continues to miss blocks or just can’t contain opposing defenders in pass protection, causing quarterback Kelly Bryant to scramble more often than is necessary. The running backs also continue to struggle, and the line’s inability to open up holes or hold blocks has been a big contributing factor to the issue.
“Definitely in pass protection, we didn’t do a very great job protecting (Bryant) on Saturday. We put him in a lot of bad situations where he was scrambling back there, trying to do ‘Houdini’ and things like that,” center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. “We need to do a better job as an offensive line.”
Though the offense is in a major funk on the field, you wouldn’t be able to see it the way the team goes about its business (at least when reporters and cameras are around).
Every player talks about how high spirits are, how lively practices are and how they feel even closer now that they’ve been through adversity together. They haven’t played well since taking down Ole Miss on Homecoming, but there’s still an opportunity for the team to get close to back on track to end the year. The results might not be there, but it seems like the confidence certainly is.
“It’s not a lack of confidence or anything like that,” Colon-Castillo said. “We’re out there, we’re playing ... You look at the beginning of the third quarter (against Florida), you know, we’re losing by three to the No. 10 team in the country. So definitely not a lack of confidence or anything like that by no means.”
It’s going to take a lot more than confidence to pick up a win. Missouri has had Tennessee’s number the past two seasons, winning 50-17 in both, but neither of these teams are the same as in past years. The Tigers don’t look like a team that can run up the scoreboard for the third year in a row, and the Volunteers look like a team that should stop that from happening.
Right now, Missouri is faced with a four-game losing streak, consistent criticism and a coaching staff that might be on the hot seat if things don’t improve soon.
Those reasons should be big motivating factors for this team — and especially the offense — to focus all its energy on bouncing back against Tennessee.
But if nothing else, sending the seniors off with a win in their last home game should be motivation enough.
“When (the seniors) leave here, I know that the program balance on the things that they’ve done, student-athlete, all the things that go along with it, they’ve made our place better,” head coach Barry Odom said. “They’ve made our university better, they’ve made our athletic department better... You look at the ups and the downs that they’ve been through (...), that’s why the opportunity for me to make sure that they leave the right way, that’s really important.”