Do you like ten-win seasons? Do you hate losing to Tennessee? Well, then, this week has something just for you!
Josh Heupel and the Volunteers come to Columbia in a battle of tied-for-second-place-in-the-East teams, and for Missouri to both inch a step a closer to a ten-win regular season and FINALLY beat a team that has had their number since 2019, this week’s matchup is pivotal.
Here’s the preview I did on the Vols this summer. I did not anticipate a full offensive-identity-overhaul but after losing two NFL-caliber receivers and returning multiple experienced running backs, I can understand the changes. Let’s dive in and look at the matchups that will influence this week’s game.
When Missouri Has the Ball
The Tiger Offense against the Vol Defense is the strength-on-strength, premier matchup of this game and will likely determine which team can play within their comfort zone. The Volunteers like to play aggressive and create havoc which leads to low efficiency rates but also opens up opportunities for big plays. So far those big plays haven’t manifested frequently for their opponents but, if they do, and offenses start hanging 20+ points on them, Tennessee is either in a close dogfight (Kentucky scored 27 in a game decided by 6 points)) or they outright lose (Florida and Alabama put up 29 and 34, respectively). So it seems pretty clear what Mizzou needs to do here!
For all of Tennessee’s aggression they haven’t really been bitten hard or with consequence by big plays. Luther Burden, Theo Wease, Mookie Cooper, and Muscle Hampster Schrader need to make them pay for their aggression and force the defense to play out of sorts. Because Tennessee’s defense is so good at swarming and generating negative plays I’m going to lower the usual goal slightly and say eight (8) explosive plays should be enough shock to the system to find long-term success.
Convert on Third Downs
The bad: Tennessee is 10th in the country in stopping 3rd-and-short. Good: they’re 82nd in stopping 3rd-and-medium and 47th at stopping 3rd-and-long. Missouri isn’t particularly good at converting any of those but the window is open to do so. Let’s shoot for at least a 55% success rate on 3rd-downs.
Finish your dang drives
Always always always. I’m thinking this one will be decided in the 30s so let’s say 6 scoring opportunities and at least 5 points per scoring opportunity.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Unlike previous iterations of the Heupel Tennessee offense, this one is less predicated on rapid-fire passes and relies more on three excellent running backs shredding through defensive front seven and forcing secondaries to make good tackles; Florida and Alabama could do that, but few others have been able to replicate that success. The 14th-best offense in the country runs 59% of the time on standard downs (52nd in the country) and 40.7% of the time on passing downs (28th in the country) while operating at the third-fastest tempo in all of college football. There’s going to be a ton of snaps and a lot of winded linemen if the Vols are able to operate in the manner they want operate.
Bottle up the run
The Volunteer offensive line doesn’t allow a ton of pressure and is 18th in the country in keeping runs from being stuffed at or behind the line, but is one of the worst in penalties and doesn’t have the most sterling success rate in short-yardage situations. Instead, they open up 4-yard holes for their backs 50% of the time and hope that guy can break a big one, owing to the 13th-best explosive run rate in the country. The answer, of course, is for Mizzou to replicate what they did against Georgia: muck up the middle, attack once it bounces outside, and for the love of everything holy wrap up and bring thee guy down. Blake Baker’s guys have shown the ability to do so against elite competition multiple times this year, so the goal is to keep Tennessee at a sub-40% success rate on the ground.
End their dang drives
One of the very few glaring weaknesses of this offense is their inability to finish drives with touchdowns. Tennessee’s offense is currently averaging 3.9 points per opportunity (96th) while Missouri’s defense is currently allowing 4.4 points per opportunity (92nd). Brady Cook and friends average 4.9 as a reference point, so let’s shoot to keeping Tennessee at 4.0 or lower, just to be safe.
If it feels like Mizzou has played the same type of team multiple times this year, it’s because they have. Kansas State, Kentucky, Georgia, and now Tennessee are all teams that are some level of variation of 1.) offense that heavily utilizes the run and sprinkles in a few deadly passes, and 2.) high-level smothering defense that only gives up big plays and nothing else. Missouri is 2-1 against that type of team whereas Tennessee has not gone against an offense this season that plays the exact style that Mizzou plays. Hopefully that makes a difference in yet another game that should be close until the end.