Another week, another swing game to try and get to six wins and the postseason. This one is featured at home, finally, but the test is no less difficult. Tennessee is rebuilding under former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, but features a ton of talent at almost every position, far outclassing the caliber of athlete that Mizzou is trotting out on to the field.
They are THE fastest offense in the country and - wait for this bombshell - love to run the ball. For all the accolades Heupel’s warp-speed offenses have had laid upon it, the running game was always a complementary feature to a blitzkrieg passing game. However, thanks to an elite offensive line and the juggling of quarterbacks, the Volunteer ground game ranks a good 53rd in the country compared to the 107th-ranked passing attack.
Just another Saturday in the life of Missouri football in the year 2021.
Here’s the preview I did for Tennessee this summer. I mentioned that the Volunteers were losing - and gaining - a shocking amount of dudes via transfer portal and they did end up with nearly a fourth of their team being brand new. However, while those transfers do rotate in, most of the starters (at least, four games in) are guys who were featured on last year’s team.
Here’s what Tennessee has done so far this season:
Does that look somewhat familiar to you? Letting a G5 team hang around for a while before pulling away, losing to an ACC team, flattening an FCS team, losing to a divisional opponent? No? Ok, let me be more overt:
These two teams have had eerily similar experiences so far in 2021. Both teams have gone about it in different ways, mind you, but the results are very close to each other.
None of that means anything come this Saturday, it was just an interesting note. I mean, hell, even the score of each team’s ACC games are the same! Freaky!
Let’s look at the keys to the game on how Missouri can win the most evenly-matched game left on its schedule.
When Missouri Has the Ball
Like most years, Tennessee has a bunch of highly-touted athletes on their roster with six former blue-chippers starting on defense, three of which are in the secondary. Oddly enough, they are more susceptible to the pass than the run but are equally deadly on either standard or passing downs. Like most games (outside of the Georgia game), I’m not overly worried about what the Missouri offense will do, but there are still preferred routes to get there.
Convert on 3rd Downs
Tennessee's defense is the fifth best in the country at generating 3-and-outs, doing so at a 50% rate. Missouri’s offense, however, is Top 20 in the country at avoiding 3-and-outs, getting spun off the field in three plays less than 18% of the time. I touched on this in the Beyond the Box Score for the Boston College game, but I’ll say it again here: Missouri’s best strategy on offense going forward is to take 10-14 plays to plod along down the field and keep the defense on the sideline. Tennessee’s offense goes so fast that their defense is already on the field long enough, it’s a good idea to keep close to the chains and wear them out as the game goes on. The Tigers should shoot for a 3rd-down conversion rate of over 70%.
Throw to Win
After the Kentucky game I mused that it might not be a good idea for Connor Bazelak to throw over 40+ times in a game and expect to win. However, seeing how effective the intermediate passing game can be when melded with Tyler Badie’s versatility - plus the iffiness of Mizzou’s run blocking - I hereby amend my statement and fully endorse the quick passing game offense. Tennessee doesn’t give up big plays at all so the quick passes and 3-yard runs are going to be the way to move the ball effectively. If the receivers can continue the streak of sure-handedness and Badie can bust a few big runs when the Volunteers give him the chance, that’s going to be the way to go. That will need a passing success rate of over 45% but I think that can be done.
Finish your dang drives
Because you have to! The Tiger defense will only get you two to three stops per game so the offense must get into scoring position and must finish with points, ideally 7 of them. I’ll also take any Thiccer moon shots in order to salvage something from any drive that gets close. Missouri has been pretty good this year at generating points so I’ll challenge them again: 7 scoring opportunities, 5 points per opportunity.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
It’s going to suck watching Missouri play defense this week for the same reason it’s always sucked to watch Missouri play defense in 2021. This week might be particularly painful, however. Yes, the Volunteers move fast and like to run the ball a lot. But you know what the big reason is? THIS IS THE BIG REASON:
Come oooooonnnnnnnnnnn. Is it not enough to get detonated by moderately athletic offensive lines? Now they have to go against the bluest of blue-chip lines Missouri will see this side of Georgia? Mother forking shirt, guys. Ugh.
Truly, I’m not sure what I can put here - or any of these other previews - that’s going to be unique or tactical. Missouri opponents will run the ball and those that are bad or dumb enough to throw it will seal their doom. It’s not rocket surgery. But let me try anyway.
Pounce on Passing Downs
Tennessee is pretty good at staying within Standard Down range and are also decent at converting 3rd-and-manageable. What they aren’t good at, however, is Passing Downs, currently sitting at a 28.6% success rate when it’s 2nd-and-8+ or 3rd/4th-and-5+ (81st in the nation). That’s partly because they run it a ton and aren’t good at passing (because, again, they’ve played two different quarterbacks). So, if Missouri gets them in those situations they must capitalize. The goal is to keep Tennessee’s passing downs success rate at under 30%.
Look, we all know Missouri’s defense isn’t going to stop anyone by conventional means so let’s get aggressive. Throw eight in the box and send six just to see what happens. Tennessee doesn’t pass a ton, but when they do, they give up a ton of pressure on their quarterback: 107th in sack rate, 98th in quarterback pressure rate. Missouri is good at generating pressure, and while the sacks haven’t quite been there since the Central Michigan game, that pressure can add up to bad decisions and maybe even some sacks. This is all assuming that Tennessee is stupid enough to try and pass, but over the course of 14 possessions, they’re going to have to pretend to do it at some point. The defense must make them pay for that idiocy. Give me 2 sacks, or at least a 20% havoc rate, and I’ll be happy.
Tennessee likes to go up and down the field with 14-15 possessions per game and just spin defenses into a stupor while the offense has to press to keep up and plays outside their comfort zone. Missouri is content to keep it at 10 possessions, methodically work down the field, and hope an offense that gets bored on the sidelines loses their groove and serves up an easy 3-and-out. If styles makes fights this will be a good one of counter-style football. The possession and play numbers at the end will tell the story of whose style won out and, most likely, that will also determine the winner.
Tennessee has a 52% win probability, the closest either team has on their schedule for the rest of the year. Hopefully the home crowd and a renewed sense of urgency are enough to push the Tigers ahead. Otherwise, it could be a very long year indeed.