Will Shelton – Dylan Wiesman
Lots to choose from this week, no doubt. But with all the conversation about the defense getting lined up right without its middle linebacker and one of its safeties, I think a far more pressing concern is how Tennessee's offensive line will fare without its starting center. This is especially concerning when facing Missouri's pass rush, which is more or less simply Missouri's defensive line. With Mack Crowder doubtful lots of responsibilities will fall to Dylan Wiesman, who hasn't played much at all this year despite Tennessee's struggles up front. Josh Dobbs covers a multitude of sins, but Missouri is the first defense Dobbs has faced that is capable of doing the sort of damage Oklahoma and Ole Miss did. While I don't expect a return to five or six sacks and the QB getting hit on every play, I do think the Vols will struggle in both the run and pass game if Wiesman can't immediately step in and hold the line. There are plenty of tall tasks on Saturday night, but his may be the steepest learning curve.
Kid Bourbon – Josh Dobbs
This offense has been a completely different animal since Josh Dobbs started taking snaps against Alabama. It's not surprising that the offense runs appreciably better with a QB whose strengths tend to direclty address, and mitigate, a weakness that plagued the team -- was the subject of countless spilled pixels -- prior to the emergence of our new favorite ATLien. But it IS surprising that the offense has improved THIS much. If you're being a reasonable human being, you have to credit Dobbs for the marked difference in the Vols' offensive acumen, and it's also reasonable to suspect that there could be some kind of drop off on that front. A "bad game", so to speak. This would be a bad time for that, though, as I'm not necessarily sure our defense is going to look like the same animal without A.J. Johnson making defenders pay for approaching the middle of the field, and thereby making them think about that for the rest of the game. It could be a markedly less imposing outfit. And, if so, we're going to need some points on the board, which means we're going to need some offense, which means we're going to need you, Dobbsy.
Hunter Turner – Jalen Reeves-Maybin
With AJ Johnson suspended, the middle linebacker position will most likely be manned by talented but painfully inexperienced true freshman Jakob Johnson. That means that all of the leadership and alignment responsibilities of the middle linebacker fall to sophomore terror JRM. Curt Maggitt will provide all of the emotional leadership the Vols' defense needs, but he's likely to be too busy moving all over the field for his hybrid defensive end/outsider linebacker position to be able to handle the defensive calls as well. With Brian Randolph suspended for the first half and Johnson the Younger filling in for Johnson the Elder, JRM will need to be at his best to make sure Tennessee doesn't get gouged in the first half.
Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk is an inconsistent and volatile thrower (which you'd know if you read Pendley's preview this morning, where he compared Mauk to Sexy Rexy), so the other other Tigers are likely to try and take advantage of running back Russell Hansbrough's speed on the outside. JRM must make sure that the defense is correctly aligned and prepared to play gap control, because Hansbrough (and, to a lesser extent, Murphy) have the ability to break the kind of long runs that plagued the Tennessee defense last year.
No pressure, Jalen!
Incipient_Senescence – John Jancek
When you're missing your best linebacker and your best safety, the defensive coordinator has his work cut out for him. The Vols will likely start true freshmen at middle linebacker and free safety, in addition to the usual true freshmen starting at corner and defensive end. Jancek needs to put these young players in a position to succeed, not letting an inexperienced defense get outsmarted by Missouri's offense and not letting the weakened middle of the defense get hammered by a solid run game.
Chris Pendley – Derek Barnett
For one, I already called dibs. For another, Tennessee will need to cause some havoc in this game since there isn't much separating these teams. That looks like blown up drives for starters and possibly a couple of harried plays. Enter the guy with 18 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, and 5 QB hurries. The Missouri offensive line is a bit pliable--a bit more likely to have runs blown up than surrender sacks, but that's as much due to Maty Mauk as anything--and the more Barnett can do to increase havoc, the better.
Joel Hollingsworth – Jakob in the middle
You don't know what you got until it's gone, and there's what appears to be a gaping hole in the middle of the Tennessee defense. We're not sure who's going to fill in for A.J. Johnson, but if it's Jakob Johnson, much of stopping Missouri's run game is going to fall on his shoulders. Go get 'em, Jakob.