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Is Missouri’s defense built to stop this version of the Tennessee offense?

This is a very different Vols offense than the one that crushed the Tigers in Knoxville a year ago.

Texas A&M v Tennessee Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Remember that high-flying Tennessee offense that shredded Blake Baker’s defense to the tune of 66 points last season? That unit averaged more than 320 passing yards per game. The only power five teams in the country with a more productive passing offense a year ago were Washington and USC. Tennessee’s 10 yards per attempt were the best by any college team to attempt at least 100 passes last season.

It was, by just about any measure, a top five passing offense in the game. And that passing game carved Mizzou up.

The Tigers tried just about everything. Nothing worked. Hendon Hooker finished the day with 355 yards against the Tigers. Jalin Hyatt and Bru McCoy each went over 100 yards through the air. Nine of Tennessee’s 14 drives resulted in a touchdown. Two other drives got into Missouri territory, but stalled out as the Vols attempted to convert on 4th down.

Missouri’s defense got off to a rough start last year against Kansas State, but it rebounded and kept the Tigers in every game the rest of the year. Except against the Vols. That one was an absolute nightmare.

Will this time be different?

It almost has to be, honestly. I can’t imagine there’s a team in the country that switched its identity more from one year to the next than Tennessee has. This is the sign of a great offensive coach. Josh Heupel no longer has the quarterback or the receivers to dominate through the air. What he does have, though, is a heck of an offensive line and a trio of running backs that more than get the job done.

Tennessee has transitioned from arguably the best passing offense in the country into... one of the best running teams in the country? And it happened seemingly overnight.

Let’s take a quick look into Tennessee’s offensive rankings nationally (via CFBStats):

  • 22nd in points per game (34.8), 18th in yards per play (6.6)
  • 3rd in rushing yards per game (227.8), 5th in rushing yards per carry (5.8)
  • 59th in passing yards per game (238.7), T51st in passing yards per attempt (7.7)
  • T19th in tackles for loss allowed (4.3 per game)
  • 27th in third down conversion rate (45.2%)
  • 113th in red zone touchdown rate (51.2%)
  • 2nd in 10+ yard run plays (72), 24th in 20+ yard run plays (16)
  • 103rd in 20+ yard pass plays (22), T59th in 30+ yard pass plays (14)

To get a little more specific, here’s where Tennessee ranks offensively compared to its SEC foes (via SEC Stat Cat):

  • 5th in points per drive (2.9)
  • 4th in yards per drive (39.5)
  • Most Rushing Yards Before Contact per Carry (3.05)
  • 4th Most Rushing Yards After Contact per Carry (3.25)
  • 2nd lowest turnover rate (0.95%)
  • Highest RPO rate (42%)

You get the point. Tennessee is absolutely dominating folks on the ground. Jaylen Wright is the main man getting the job done. He’s gone over 100 yards rushing in six of his nine games this season. Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson will also work in and get 5-10 carries each. All three backs are averaging more than five yards per carry on the season (sheesh!).

If that’s not enough, you also have to worry about the threat of Joe Milton III’s legs. He hasn’t run as often as I would have expected this season, but he’s carried the ball 10-15 times against the better teams on Tennessee’s schedule. I would expect to see something similar against the Tigers.

Alright, let’s cut to the chase. Tennessee’s offense is different. They’re not going to attack the Tigers the same way they have in the past. Can the Tigers stop it? They seem well equipped to do exactly that.

Only two teams have rushed for more than four yards per carry against Missouri this season: LSU and Kentucky. More than half of LSU’s yardage came from Jayden Daniels’ ability to extend plays with his legs. Kentucky racked up 111 rushing yards in the first quarter, and 68 yards on the ground the rest of the game. Now, those games happened. At times, they weren’t pretty. I’m sure Tennessee will see things on film from those games, specifically, that the Vols will attempt to exploit.

Another factor in Missouri’s favor is the Tigers’ propensity to blitz. Milton hasn’t been blitzed a ton this season, but when he has, it’s been a bit of an adventure. He’s willing to hold onto the ball longer than one would prefer and while he boasts a cannon for an arm, he is not a particularly accurate quarterback. None of this leads to consistent results when pressured, and that pressure tends to come from designed blitzes.

I say all of that to say this — Missouri got boat-raced in this matchup a year ago. That can’t happen this time around, and I don’t expect it to. There are some missed tackle issues that need to be cleaned up at the second level. The safeties are going to be forced to tackle, too. But this defensive line just went toe-to-toe against Georgia and won the battle in the trenches. There is no reason it can’t do something similar against Tennessee.

And if the defensive line is able to dominate at the point of attack, the Tigers’ defense should be able to stop this version of Tennessee’s offense.