Well...the rules say Missouri has to play Tennessee in football every year, so I guess that’s what we’re going to do.
Here’s the preview I wrote this summer. At the time I wondered how good they actually were since the ‘21 team seemed to pick on terrible teams and run up the score while putting up a fight and faltering against teams with a pulse. They are a good team this year, no doubt about it, and they have three impressive wins as well: LSU on the road, a 3-point win against Alabama at home, and a dismantling of Kentucky at home. Those teams rank 15th, 4th, and 22nd in SP+ respectively.
They’re also really good at home. It’s November 9th and they’ve only had three road games this year: a 3-point overtime win over 50th-best Pitt, the aforementioned 40-13 shellacking of LSU, and last week’s demolition loss to Georgia, rocking a combined score of Tennessee 87 - Road Opponent 67.
At home the Vols are undefeated with a scoring margin of Tennessee 321 - Home Opponent 128. The hope is that Missouri can replicate the performance of Pitt - another Missouri clone that only runs the ball (poorly) and plays dynamite defense - without the benefit of catching them outside Neyland Stadium. It can be done! But it won’t be easy.
When Missouri Has the Ball
The 38th-best defense in SP+ is certainly an imposing unit on its own but much more preferable to their offensive counterparts. This is another team whose defensive weaknesses match-up with Missouri’s offensive deficiencies so the winner of this stoppable force vs. movable object will determine if Missouri can keep up with the Vols’ vaunted offense.
Yeah, this sucks to see, doesn’t it? Tennessee’s run defense is Top 10 in the country and has a 24% stuff rate against opposing ground games, 15th-best in the nation and a death knell to whatever hodge-podge offensive line Mizzou will trot out on Saturday. So, once again, I am begging Eli Drinkwitz to let go of his outside-zone-binky and rely on Brady Cook’s...arm talent...to move the ball against the 93rd-best passing defense. The Vols’ secondary is allowing a 43.5% success rate through the air so far this year compared to Missouri’s 37.9% success rate when they throw the ball. Let’s meet in the middle and set the goal at a 40% success rate when passing.
When Missouri gets them they’re rolling. If they don’t, the drive has no hope. For all of its strengths, Tennessee’s rush defense has the odd propensity of giving up big gains on the ground, currently 81st in the country. Missouri will need at least 9 explosive plays to keep up and I’d expect most of those to be through the ground game.
Finish your dang drives
BREAKING NEWS: kicking field goals isn’t going to let you keep up with Tennessee. The Volunteers are averaging 45 points per game and 37 points per SEC game. Their lowest scoring output on the year was 13 points against Georgia’s #1 defense but, after that, it’s 34 on the road against Missouri doppelganger Pitt. Unfortunately, Tennessee’s defense is 6th in points given up per scoring opportunity but, it doesn’t matter, you have to find a way to score touchdowns. 8 scoring opportunities with 4.5 points per opportunity is the goal.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
You can stop these guys. It takes disciplined secondary play and an immense amount of pressure and havoc. Georgia and Pitt did it. No others have (including Alabama). Blake Baker will earn himself another raise if he finds a way to keep these guys under 40 points.
Make Them Inefficient
Pitt and Georgia both have defenses that are at the same level as Missouri and both times Tennessee had extended drives of struggle. The key is to disrupt the timing of the passing game as Josh Heupel thrives on utilizing his full personnel options at a fast tempo and in unique situations. Against Georgia and Pitt he had to keep guys back to block and they were so inconsistent in their successful plays they couldn’t utilize their tempo to wear out the opposition. Tennessee is used to success rates in the 50s and Missouri’s defense holds teams in the 30s. Even keeping the Vols passing success rate at 45% or less would be a huge win for this defense.
This is the other aspect that can derail Tennessee’s dynamic offense. They currently rank 57th in sack rate but, notably, 95th in sack rate in passing down situations. They move fast enough and throw it quick enough that the pressure usually isn’t there but secondaries that can hang with the Vols’ talent skill position guys have a chance at knocking down Hendon Hooker. Sacks, PDs, and especially TURNOVERS will be key here. Missouri needs to notch at least a 35% havoc rate.
Again, Tennessee can be beat. And Missouri has the defense to replicate the designs of Pitt’s and Georgia’s game plans that limited Tennessee. But Missouri does not have the offense to keep up and will need to punch left-handed to surprise-knock-out the favorite in this matchup. If they can it’ll be a fun game. If they can’t it’ll be over quickly.