If Mizzou has any hopes to make it to a bowl game this season, this is essentially a must-win for the Tigers. Too add even more intrigue, former Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Heupel returns to Columbia as Tennessee’s head coach. Kick-off on Saturday is set for the usual 11:00 a.m. CST on the SEC Network.
To get a Tennessee perspective, I talked it over with Nick Carner over at Rocky Top Talk to preview the upcoming match up.
Here’s the Q and A:
Sammy Stava: What were your first thoughts when Tennessee hired former Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, and what do you think are his realistic expectations as the Volunteers’ head coach?
Nick Carner: Oh, man What a question. Frankly, I’ve been conditioned into a fairly shallow, middle-of-the-road, wait-and-see approach with any Tennessee football Head Coach hire. With that said, digging a little deeper, I’d say I was in a place of cautious optimism layered with latent disappointment.
But, given the program’s circumstances — recent and less recent on-the-field struggles, lingering NCAA investigation, roster attrition (from the coaching change and also compounded by NCAA black cloud), new AD hire into a only-recently stabilized athletic department — it’s hard to be real upset at a coach with a career 75-percent winning percentage, despite the small sample size.
Looking back, though, the disappointment was likely rooted in new AD hire Danny White’s recent history with Josh Heupel as the head coach at UCF, where White had also just been the AD. How convenient for them both, huh? I don’t know — I guess it just came off as an easy way out.
Officially, I’m on record with Tennessee finishing the season at 4-8, and I still think the Vols finish somewhere around there, though I have come around to the possibility that they might steal a game, somewhere, that they’re not “supposed” to win.
SS: What’s been the overall feeling around the Tennessee fanbase starting the season 2-2?
NC: Sitting here at 2-2 is about what most fans expected, I think. Perhaps some were more optimistic about beating Pittsburgh and heading into The Swamp at 3-0, and looking back at the Pitt game, those folks didn’t totally miss the mark. That was a winnable game for the Vols that they just couldn’t quite do enough to get the dub.
SS: Hendon Hooker’s status for this game is uncertain right now, according to Heupel. Do you expect him or Joe Milton to start at quarterback on Saturday?
NC: You got a coin in your pocket? Flip it. Total shot in the dark — Hooker. If he’s healthy, he’s played well enough that I don’t think you can take the job back from him; he’s just got to lose it. Milton won the job coming out of fall camp, but it doesn’t appear like he’s progressed much from last season when he lost the starting gig at Michigan. He’s got that alluring combination of size, speed and arm strength coaches love in QBs, but he’s missing the most important piece to a QB puzzle — accuracy. The plus side from Missouri’s point of view is that Tennessee’s game-plan on offense will likely be pretty similar with either guy taking the snaps.
SS: Both Tennessee and Mizzou come into this game with a 2-2 record with a 41-34 loss to an ACC team, making this a pivotal game for both teams. Who do you think needs a win more here?
NC: Eh, I’d say there’s maybe more pressure on Missouri to win. I’m not entirely familiar with Mizzou’s expectations coming into this season, but it’s year two for Eli Drinkwitz, and he’s already changed defensive coordinators — even though, if I understand the situation correctly, it wasn’t a performance-based firing one year into a new head coach’s tenure and thereby can’t really be assessed through that sort of lens. Going 5-5 last year wasn’t horrible, I don’t think, with it being such a weird all-around season as the first in Drinkwitz’s tenure. But I’m sure Mizzou fans wanna see some progress.
I mean — Missouri’s at home against a team that’s got a new head coach who’s sporting a paper-thin roster. While the Vols aren’t bereft of talent, Heupel’s offensive scheme doesn’t mesh well being deployed by a team that’s 15-ish players below the scholarship limit.
Sure, Tennessee’s won the last two games in this series, but Missouri had won the two before that with both games being 50-17 beatdowns. As important as this game is for Tennessee, on its own merit and as a barometer for the rest of the year, I think it’s a more crucial game for Missouri at this stage in the Drinkwtiz era.
SS: Mizzou opened as a 3-point favorite. How do you see this game playing out on Saturday. Have a final score prediction?
NC: I like Connor Bazelak, and Tyler Badie is one of the best running backs in the conference (a real shocker that Tennessee let Badie get out of the state without even an offer, and *checks notes* apparently didn’t want Elijah Young, from Knoxville either. *rolls eyes*). Tennessee’s offense is going to be a storyline because of its pace and the question at QB. But I think it’s the defenses that decide this game. Tennessee’s was stout against Florida, for half of the game. If Mizzou can force some quick Vol three and outs then turn those into TDs, then, well, yeah.
I’ve been pretty impressed with new Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks so far, especially given the time his group is spending on the field each game, and Heupel’s play calling/ play designs helped keep the Vols neck-and-neck with the No. 11-ranked team in the country last week. No score prediction, but I think UT steals a close one in Columbia.
This is setting up to be a really interesting game that Mizzou simply can’t afford to lose. Thanks to Nick Carner for his time on these. You can follow him and Rocky Top Talk on Twitter for all things Tennessee coverage this week!