The game against Alabama shouldn’t be used for anything other than seeing how Missouri can take its lumps against a superior team. It was a great opportunity for the younger players to get some lessons via the school of hard knocks, shake off some rust from an extended offseason, and to get live reps for schemes and plays against an opponent that hasn’t seen them before. All good, close the book, moving on.
This week the opponent is Tennessee, and, while they have recruited like Alabama for the past two years, their upperclassmen are still the holdovers from the Butch Jones-era; that means that they were highly regarded coming out of high school and just never really developed past what they already were (sound familiar?).
Tennessee played a whopping 11 freshmen in their game against South Carolina and it showed: after going up 21-7, South Carolina made a furious comeback while Tennessee’s offense fell asleep. The Gamecocks stalled out when Muschamp chose to kick a field goal down by 7 with 4 minutes left and then muffed the punt that could have given them a last chance. The feeling from Knoxville is one of relief rather than joy, but now they’re back home, going against a team in Missouri that has produced a series where the victor either a.) wins by 4 or b.) wins by 40.
Tennessee is a dangerous team for a rebuilding Missouri, but now is the time to tag them before they start building rosters equivalent to Georgia or Alabama. Let’s look at some opportunities that Missouri needs to take advantage of on Saturday:
Missouri’s Key Stats against Tennessee’s Offense
Knock Them Off Schedule
Jarrett Guarantano is...well, he’s fine. He’s a Toyota Corolla. He’s tap water with ice. A cheese quesadilla. He’s never something that you’d seek out, but if it’s what you have then it’ll do. After being on campus for five years and playing in 34 games, he’s thrown for 5,062 yards with a 60% completion percentage and 32 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, with 63 sacks. An average Guarantano game is 148 yards passing, 1 touchdown, and 2 sacks with maybe an interception thrown in. He makes safe reads, is happy to take a sack, and lets his playmakers do most of the heavy lifting.
So it’s imperative for a defense to make him beat you. In 2019 against Missouri he did so, throwing for 415 yards and 2 touchdowns while only taking one sack. Last week against South Carolina he threw for 259 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 sacks. Jim Cheney’s offense thrives by staying on schedule, getting easy yards early in the downs (57% success rate) and converting with the running game on third down, not forcing Guarantano to make a play. When he does have to make a play on third down in passing down situations the offense falls apart (20% success rate). Yes, part of that is Muschamp’s mighty Gamecock defense but with only one proven weapon on the outside and a running game that is sparingly used, forcing Guarantano to do something is the best way to keep the Volunteers off track and play to their weakness. If, at the end of the game, Tennessee has to face 8-9 passing downs and has a success rate of less than 30%, the Tigers will be in a good spot.
Stop Josh Palmer
Last year, Tennessee’s three-head receiver monster went for 349 yards on 31 targets; 7 of those targets, and 124 of those yards, belonged to Palmer. Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway are in the NFL now but Palmer is still commanding targets, finishing last week with 6 catches for 85 yards and a touchdown. The rest of the receiving corps combined for 14 catches so he’s still the go-to guy. Yes, Brandon Johnson had 73 yards and, yes, Velus Jones Jr. is a great slot weapon, but if Missouri is going to force Guarantano to make a play it should also bracket off Palmer and make one of the other guys beat them. If Missouri keeps his success rate sub-50% and the yardage around 100, then I feel good about their chances of limiting the overall Volunteers offensive threat.
Missouri’s Key Stats again Tennessee’s Defense
Against Alabama, Larry Rountree III had 14 carries for 67 yards, good for 4.8 yards per carry. On its own that’s not much, other than pointing out that 4.8 per carry is damn good against a Saban defense. However, the offensive line was getting him about 3 yards per carry, he was adding about 2.5 yards after that, and was getting the necessary yards needed 57% of the time. That’s his best success rate since 2019 West Virginia and, again, damn near impossible to do against Alabama.
Against South Carolina, Tennessee gave up 105 yards and a touchdown to Gamecock running backs, letting them function at a 48% success rate on the ground. The Volunteers returned all their linemen but only one standout linebacker from the 2019 group and, at least in the first game, Cocky was able to find some holes.
Coach Drinkwitz lamented at the post-game presser that he should have given Larry some more carries. Well, this would be a great time to do it and see how Missouri’s patchwork offensive line holds up against a non-other-worldly front seven. If Rountree finishes with 16-20 rushes and a success rate north of 50% the Tigers will be grooving.
Passing Downs Success Rate
Tennessee only lost one guy from last year’s nine-man secondary - the tremendously named Nigel Warrior - but are dealing with COVID issues enough that freshmen populated most of the two-deep. Those freshmen are very highly rated coming out of high school, mind you, but are freshmen, nonetheless.
So while the Volunteer secondary was expected to be excellent this year - and could still very well be - on Saturday they gave up 290 yards through the air, with 140 of that generated by Shi Smith on his own. While Tennessee kept South Carolina at a 39% success rate when passing the ball, the Gamecocks also had a 40% success rate in passing downs, blowing holes in the Volunteer secondary, particularly in the second half.
Meanwhile, Shawn Robinson had a 41% success rate when throwing the ball in passing down situations. Again, you might say that was against the Tide’s backups, but they kept most of their young starters out there. Young starters that were even more highly rate than Tennessee’s. See where I’m going with this?
If an offense falls behind schedule, it can be bailed out by a quarterback making a play, either through the air or with his legs. Robinson wasn’t very good at running, but did a decent job of distributing the ball to the open guy in passing down situations. If he can replicate that against Tennessee - and the receivers can get a few extra yards - that could be enough to keep them moving and create some scoring opportunities. If the passing downs success rate is over 45%, then Robinson is making enough plays to keep the offense on the field.
This will always be a key in any game that is projected close. Against Alabama, Missouri’s points per scoring opportunity was 3.8; 5 trips inside the opponent 40-yard line, 19 points earned. Alabama, meanwhile, averaged 5.4 points over their 7 trips. That might not matter against The Crimson Death Star, but it does matter in a matchup where you can actually win. Yes, Missouri needs to generate many more scoring opportunities than they did against Bama, but if they average 5.4 over 5 trips that’s 27 points — which, in this game, might win it.
Bill Connelly projects Tennessee as a 71% chance to win this one. The Volunteers look a little more raggedy than expected due to quarantining efforts so who makes it back for this game is still up in the air. I liked what I saw from Missouri, but this will be the first “true” game where Missouri’s decisions and execution can actually give them a chance to win. Keep an eye on these factors and lets hope the break Missouri’s way.