The 14th ranked Missouri Tigers look to bounce back after the 30-21 loss to the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs. Looking to keep their New Year’s Six Bowl hopes and a 10-win regular season alive, Mizzou hosts the No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers to see who takes the second-place spot in the SEC East standings.
To get some perspective on the Josh Heupel-led Vols, we talked it over with Nick Carner from SB Nation’s Rocky Top Talk.
Kick-off on Saturday in COMO is set for 2:30 p.m. CT on CBS with Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson on the call.
Here’s the Q&A to get you ready:
Sammy Stava: Tennessee comes in with a record of 7-2 and other than a disappointing loss to Florida, would you say that it’s been a good season for the Volunteers up to this point? What is the expectation for this team to finish down the stretch?
Nick Carner: It’s absolutely been a success. Of course, the Florida loss stung, but this team is missing five guys who got drafted and a few more who ended up getting free agents deals and replacing that kind of production isn’t easy. Then wide receiver Bru McCoy, the former Southern Cal transfer who Vols fans were expecting to lead the receiving corps this year, went down with a season-ending injury in the South Carolina game. The Vols also lost BYU transfer linebacker Keenan Pili likely for the year after the first game of the season, and he showed some real promise in the first game of the year against Virginia by starting and recording four tackles.
With all that said, this team has seemed to come together and get better as the season’s progressed. Some young guys have had to step up — namely sophomore LB Elijah Herring and freshman LB Arion Carter.
I think there was probably too much preseason hype about this team, considering it was replacing the aforementioned production from Hendon Hooker, two starting wide receivers and the No. 10 overall pick in the NFL Draft, right tackle Darnell Wright. At some points during the season, it felt like this might end up a 7-5 kinda year, but to be 7-2 in November — I think one should definitely perceive that as a success... so far.
SS: In nine games this season, Joe Milton is 168/257 with 2,016 yards through the air with 15 touchdown passes and four interceptions. How would you grade his performance so far this season?
NC: Again, there were likely some unfair expectations lumped onto Milton before the year started because of how ferocious the offense was last year and because of his physical gifts. But throwing the ball 90 yards does nobody any good if the ball sails over a receiver’s head or is just not placed in a spot where the WR is able to at least make a play on the ball. And I think that’s why you’ve seen the shift in UT’s offensive attack, with a lot more stretching the defense horizontally through the air and really leaning on its three-headed monster running-back room.
Milton’s made some mistakes, sure, but over his last three games, he’s hitting on just more than 77 percent of his passes (on 75 attempts) with five touchdowns through the air, and he’s getting better at taking off and running when the opportunity presents itself, with 27 rushes for 92 yards and a touchdown. Sure, the stats are skewed by playing just a little over a half of football last week in a 59-3 Homecoming game win last week, but there’s no question he’s taken more control of the offense and cut down on some of the exceptionally erratic accuracy that we’ve seen in the past. But the next two weeks will help determine exactly how much real progress he’s made.
SS: Of course, Joe Milton had tough shoes to fill going into this season having to replace the ultra-talented Hendon Hooker – who has drafted by the Lions in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft. Is there anything different about this offensive playstyle with Milton leading the way as opposed to Hooker last season?
NC: I touched on that a bit in the last question, but I’ll delve a little deeper here. Everybody saw Hooker connecting on long, downfield strikes over the past two seasons, but there’s been much less of that this year. Via PFF, 60.3 percent of Milton’s attempts have gone either behind or at the line of scrimmage or within zero-to-nine yards from the line. And his passing percentage on those throws is sitting at 86.4. Pretty good, right?
But without McCoy, the Vols were leaning on young guys with little experience until they started playing Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton, Jr., at the outside receiver spot — he’d played all 53 of his snaps in the slot in UT’s first six games, and it amounted to seven total catches. Since then, he’s logged all but two snaps on the outside and he’s become much more involved with the offense, totaling five grabs for 89 yards 61 of those yards coming after the catch.
The Vols have only thrown the ball down the field — from 10-19 yards from the LoS and from 20-yards plus — about 36 percent of the time on just 42 attempts. The percentage of throws from those distances are about the same, but the attempts and completions are down around 50 percent.
That’s definitely not what the team’s identity has been the last two seasons, but that’s just Heupel adjusting his scheme to what he thinks fits the players’ strengths and weaknesses best.
Tennessee’s run the ball well and often with Heupel at the helm, but this season, that dynamic has reached new heights. With Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and sophomore Dylan Sampson, UT is fourth in the country in rushing yards per-game at 227.6 and sits at seventh nationally averaging 5.6 yards per-carry. And it only runs the ball 55 percent of the time. The backs are also more involved in the passing game this year than years prior. Sampson has 14 catches for 160 and a TD, equaling out to 20 yards a grab. Then Wright is third on the team in catches with 19 and with those 19 snags going for 111 yards.
SS: Other than Milton, who are some of the big playmakers on the offensive side of the ball that Mizzou fans will need to pay attention to on Saturday? Who on the defensive side has made a big impact so far this season?
NC: Offensively, I imagine Missouri is going to make Joe Milton beat them, but I would still watch for the running backs, Wright and Sampson in particular. Wright runs through arm tackles like water runs through a stream and has NFL-level patience and vision waiting for a hole to open up, while Sampson is maybe the more dynamic of the two considering his top-end speed, but Wright’s n no slouch there, either, with two 80-plus yard runs in his career.
Also, keep an eye on little No. 10, wide receiver Squirrel White. Listed at 5-10, 165, he leads the team in catches (43) and yards (556) and has a 83-yard catch-and-run under his belt this season. If a DB gets caught slipping on a switch route, there’s no catching White. He’s one of the Vols in the 23-MPH club (during practice), but last week against UConn he hit a top speed of 21.7 (via Reel Analytics’ Twitter) on a long TD catch-and-run last week. Just real quick — don’t kick the ball to Dee Williams. Have the QB quick kick it out of bounds if you need to. He’s dangerous in the open field.
Defensively, Heupel has totally transformed the front seven in his first couple recruiting classes. Sophomore James Pearce has been like a freight train coming off the edge this year, and fellow sophomore Joshua Josephs — who actually had the better freshman season — is starting to come along, too. But Pearce leads the team in multiple defensive categories: sacks with seven; tackles-for-loss with 10 for -56 yards and QB hurries with 13. He’s fast enough to go around most tackles but he’ll bull-rush and collapse the pocket, too. His bookend, senior Tyler Baron, is second on the team in sacks with five and third in TFLs at 8 for -32 yards. At linebacker, Herring has had to step up and start after Pili’s injury and leads the team in total tackles (59). Veteran Aaron Beasley is his running mate and is second on the team in tackles with 51. Tennessee’s missing its best cover corner, Kamal Hadden, who some might remember from last season as he made some waves on Twitter by jawing continually at opposing receivers, even when he’d been beat on a play. But this year, before his season-ending injury two games ago against Alabama, he had given up zero TDs and 12 catches on 33 targets with three interceptions and six PBUs.
SS: What is the biggest strength of this Tennessee team? What is the Volunteers’ biggest weakness?
NC: Biggest strength? I figure one could go a couple different ways here, but I’d go with the run game or the defensive front seven. Both are integral to the team’s success.
As far as weaknesses go, If Miton has an off day, his accuracy can be problematic for the offense. And then the defensive backs, as a whole, have played better lately, and transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally has been a nice addition, but at times they don’t tackle well and there are still issues getting that group’s speed up to SEC standards in certain spots.
SS: How do you see this game going on Saturday, as it’s essentially a toss-up? Have a final score prediction?
NC: I see this being a *really* close game that will likely come down to which team plays the cleanest football. And Tennessee is nearly dead-last in the country in penalties per-game, so a defensive holding call on a third-down incompletion or a silly flinch on a critical, late-game drive could be the difference in the game.
If this game was in Knoxville, I’d take the Vols. But I’m taking the Tigers at home — let’s say 27-24, maybe?