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Tennessee vs Missouri Preview: The Weight & The Wait

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While Missouri plays to stay in the driver's seat, a young Tennessee team must deal with distractions, injuries, and rising expectations.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A month ago Tennessee's deficiencies were so pronounced they impacted not just the present but the future.  The offensive line was a disaster, how could we expect them to get significantly better by next season?  Mike Bajakian's offense was near the bottom of the country in yards per play, could it really work in the SEC?  And two of Tennessee's most important players were senior A.J. Johnson and senior Justin Worley, their backups being nonexistent or Nathan Peterman.  This year was dangerously close to being chalked up to more than just youth, and the idea of next year was an anxious one at best.

Insert one Josh Dobbs, and stir.

And now three weeks and two wins later, all of our problems appear solved.  Offensive line?  They're great when not protecting a drop-back passer!  Bajakian?  We have 1,156 yards and 95 points the last two games!  Dobbs has been in contention for national player of the week awards twice, eradicating questions about quarterback next year.  Tennessee appeared to be steamrolling its way to a four game winning streak to close this year and a crystal clear shot for Atlanta next year.

With truth in the middle between the way the Vols looked with Worley against the likes of Oklahoma and Ole Miss and the way Vols looked with Dobbs against the likes of South Carolina and Kentucky, seeing the Vols with Dobbs against Missouri was already set to be the best individual measuring stick for the present and the future.

But suddenly this week so many of the old questions have reappeared on the field, additional weight for a team still built to win later but playing well enough to think about beating the division leaders right now.

The offensive line?  Now you're probably without Mack Crowder, who has started at center all year, and without Austin Sanders, one of your few available backups.  This means Dylan Wiesman, who never really got on the field in spite of all those September/October problems on the line, now has to step in and start immediately.  Oh, and he gets to go against the best pass-rushing defensive line in the SEC.

We still don't know who A.J. Johnson's backup is, but whoever it is will have to play Saturday night.  If true freshman Jakob Johnson gets the nod, he will bring six total tackles to the table - four against Chattanooga, two last week.  A.J., as you probably know, is second in the SEC with 101.

So maybe Missouri's offense is still totally suspect.  But not only can they go after Jakob or whoever's in the middle, they could also exploit the first half absence of Brian Randolph in the defensive backfield, out until the third quarter from a targeting call last week.

This was a steep and important hill to climb before injuries and allegations.  But now you can add to it at least three new faces (though Todd Kelly, Jr. isn't going to make any of us panic) and the heaviness that comes with the situation A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams are in.  Daniel Hood made the point on The Sports Animal this week that it's not just having to play new guys, it's the whole team dealing with multiple texts and phone calls per day asking them what they know and what's going to happen and who's going to step in and what happens next.

We didn't know what was going to happen on the field before all this, and we certainly don't know now.  Missouri is hard to figure out, Tennessee has played 2.75 games with the new and improved Josh Dobbs, and now there's all this.

It is interesting to note, however, that what you'll see tomorrow night from Tennessee is basically what you'll see from Tennessee next year.

Justin Worley will run thru the T for the last time in street clothes.  A.J. Johnson won't be on the premises.  The only other senior starters are Jordan Williams, Justin Coleman, Jacob Gilliam, and Matt Darr.  Williams will be replaced by two five-stars.  Coleman has improved this year and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions, but the Vols have a stable of defensive backs ready and waiting to fill in at nickel next year.  Jacob Gilliam is a former walk-on playing on one ACL.  This is still a real sentence.

As we're going to get at least some answers, whether we like them or not, about what the Vol defense will look like without A.J. Johnson the rest of the way home, you can make a convincing argument that the biggest unanswered question for the 2015 Vols is, "Who punts?"

So the present and the future will collide in very tangible ways for Tennessee tomorrow night.  I believe Tennessee is good enough to beat Missouri, especially in Neyland Stadium.  But is Tennessee deep enough?  And are these still-young Vols mature enough to walk through this week and come out on the other side with a win against a team with everything to play for?

The answers are coming tomorrow night, and they will go a long way in setting the immediate tone for what we hope is to come on Rocky Top.