Welcome to the Week Eleven edition of the Three by Three. Allow me to be your college football sherpa, guiding you through the intrigue of the sport each week. I will try to avoid just covering the big obvious stuff, but sometimes the Big Ten battle is the most interesting thing, you know?
Each week I will highlight three interesting storylines each from the Missouri contest, in the SEC, and around the nation. With Mizzou coming home looking to shake off the tough loss in Athens, I’ll look at a few areas where the Tigers will need to be strong on Saturday.
Let’s get to it.
Tennessee at Missouri – 2:30 PM on CBS
Tennessee’s passing game has dried up. A year after riding Hendon Hooker and NFL receivers to explosive plays and video game numbers, the Joe Milton version has struggled through the air in 2023. Part of it is Milton not being as accurate as Hooker, but another part is a weaker group of wide receivers that do not stress defenses in the same way Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillam could.
Regardless, Missouri’s cornerbacks will still need to be strong. Hyatt got whatever he wanted last year in the slot against the Tigers. Blake Baker’s game plan will involve heating up Milton with blitzes, as well as committing an extra hat or two into the box to slow down Tennessee’s three-headed rushing attack. Missouri’s corners and safeties will need to hold up in coverage to make that plan work.
A pair of mismatches
Missouri has a pair of matchups that should go in their favor on Saturday. They will need to make sure these tendencies do fall their way.
Missouri’s defense on standard downs has been very susceptible to explosive plays, ranking 116th at surrendering big plays in spots where the offense could run or pass. Luckily, this Achilles’ Heel for Missouri is not an area where Tennessee thrives. The Volunteers are 89th in standard down explosives. Missouri can not allow one of its main weaknesses to be taken advantage of by a team not built to do so.
Another area where Tennessee struggles is finishing drives. Parker Fleming – aka statsowar on twitter – has a metric called “ECKEL,” which is his term for quality possessions that become scoring chances. Tennessee is one of the worst teams in the country at average points per ECKEL, ranking 117th in the entire nation in that metric. Blake Baker’s unit is middle of the pack – 51st – in points allowed per ECKEL. Stand Tennessee up a few times, get a few timely sacks. If the Volunteers bring field goals to a touchdown fight, Missouri will be celebrating Saturday night.
Make no doubt about it, the Tigers' rush defense is up for a stiff challenge this weekend. Tennessee has one of the best rushing attacks in the country, and Blake Baker’s front must rise to the occasion.
The Volunteers’ backfield is deep: three different ball carriers have over 70 carries, 400 yards, and average over 5 yards per carry. The ground game is both efficient (27th in success rate) and explosive (40th in explosive rush rate). Missouri has been leaky to big plays on the ground, but are 15th in the country in success rate against opposing runners. Missouri’s front of experienced defensive tackles will need to make Tennessee’s rushing attack inefficient on Saturday.
In the SEC
Ole Miss at Georgia – 6 PM on ESPN
The headliner game this weekend pits a pair of old-school SEC programs against one another, and also a pair of diametrically opposite Nick Saban disciples. Kirby Smart fashioned himself as a mini-Saban and has thrived in the way many others cut from the same cloth (Jeremy Pruitt, Will Muschamp) failed. Lane Kiffin, of course, is the man who helped Saban evolve, bringing modern ideas and the — gasp — spread offense to Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss under Kiffin has come up woefully short in many of their most-hyped matchups of this fashion. If Georgia wins, the SEC title game matchup will be set a few weeks in advance.
Auburn at Arkansas – 4 PM on SEC Network
Last week I wrote about Arkansas’s quest to turn its season around with a four-game November winning streak to secure an improbable bowl berth. The Razorbacks got the first win needed, and now host Hugh Freeze’s Tigers for the second. Auburn is on a two-game winning streak of their own, and has been one of the most anonymous teams in the SEC after a hullabaloo of an off-season.
Alabama at Kentucky — 11 AM on ESPN
Jalen Milroe is busting loose. It was about this time last year when he first showed off his prodigious rushing ability, filling in for an injured Bryce Young and picking up (number) yards on the ground. After an auspicious beginning to his time in the first chair, Milroe was dominant last week in a season-defining revenge win over LSU. He will look to keep the momentum going in a trap game at Lexington against a methodical, physical Mark Stoops Kentucky outfit.
Around the Nation
Michigan at Penn State – 11 AM on FOX
This game is the second contest of the Big Ten East’s round-championship. It’s also the first real challenge Michigan has faced all season, and only Penn State’s second. The Nittany Lions failed that test in Columbus and need to show something here to avoid bumping up against the glass ceiling again.
Oklahoma State at UCF – 2:30 PM on ESPN
The Cowboys just earned one of the biggest wins in school history, have a Heisman frontrunner, and are riding the inside rail to the Big 12 championship game. Except now they have to travel to Orlando to take on a UCF squad that is getting healthy and just for quarterback John Rhys Plumlee back from injury. Wouldn’t it be the most Gus Malzahn thing possible to pop the upset right here against a suddenly chesty Oklahoma State? Frankly, it’s the exact kind of thing Oklahoma State has been used to doing for the past two decades in this conference.
Old Dominion at Liberty – 12 PM on ESPN+
Old Dominion offensive coordinator Kevin Decker took the unbeaten path to running the Josh Heupel-inspired veer and shoot offense. He has never worked with Heupel, or Jeff Lebby, or a Briles, or even in Texas where the system was born. He was coaching at Fordham in The Bronx when one of his video staffers — who had been a video staffer with Heupel at UCF — showed him UCF film, and Decker picked it up second-hand. Now he has brought surprising competence to an Old Dominion team that was picked at the cellar of FBS. With Decker on one sideline and Jamey Chadwell on the other, this battle of in-state foes promises to get pointsy.