For a game which felt so hard to get a handle on throughout the week, Saturday night played out the way many a weekend has gone for the Vols this year. An upper-level SEC defensive line met the late-November edition of Tennessee's offensive line, where whatever improvements might have been made this season were often negated by injury and even Josh Dobbs' faster feet weren't enough to escape six sacks. Tennessee was better offensively than they were in similar mismatches against Oklahoma, Florida, and Ole Miss, but not good enough to make the difference between winning and losing.
That difference often comes in little, reliable things, and the Vols were bad at most of them last night: 5 of 15 on third down while surrendering 8 of 17 on the defensive end, a -2 turnover ratio, and though Missouri easily out-penaltied the Vols, Tennessee had a couple of critical ones to sustain Mizzou drives.
In the end we get an outcome that feels right for what both teams have been this year: the Tigers, ugly on the field at times but beautiful on the scoreboard when the night comes to an end. And the Vols, still young and growing, coming close but not doing enough of the big or little things to get a win over a ranked foe. That's the story.
The bad news is that will continue to be the story until we see improvement from the offensive line, which clearly wasn't cured just by inserting Dobbs and will still be the biggest question mark in spring practice. Tennessee, as you know, would still love another offensive tackle in February. But as we all also know, playing freshmen on the offensive line in the SEC is generally a bad idea; the guys currently on the roster have to get bigger and they have to get better for the Vols to compete for the SEC East title in 2015.
The bad news also includes Marquez North, who didn't play last night and is the latest out for the year casualty, scheduled for shoulder surgery this week. The Vol passing game has now lost North and Josh Smith, and while Pig Howard continues to put up incredible numbers with Dobbs in the game, Tennessee has to have more reliable options. Josh Malone's drop-turned-interception was even more costly than the one he dropped against Florida earlier this year. More than half of Tennessee's receptions last night went to Howard or Jalen Hurd out of the backfield; Malone had no catches, Jason Croom really wasn't involved until the final drive, and you had lots of newcomers getting thrown in the fire. The Vols are ridiculously deep at wide receiver right now. But if they're not healthy and productive at the top of that list, its depth matters far less behind an offensive line struggling to give any quarterback time against the better defenses in this league.
The good news? Not only are we done with the better defenses in this league, we play Vanderbilt next.
The Commodores have long been the cure for what ails struggling SEC teams, and Tennessee should have a chance to get back on track next week. It is as important a win to get as any have been for Butch Jones with bowl eligibility for the first time in four years on the line. The Vols are two touchdown favorites and Vandy's average margin of defeat in SEC play this year is four possessions. Tennessee should win.
Also good news? The Music City Bowl is the more prestigious destination, but the Liberty Bowl - now far and away the front-runner to host the Vols in December - is actually a more attractive match-up. Nashville gets the ACC or Big Ten's sixth-best team. Memphis gets the fourth-best team from the Big 12. Right now the sixth-best team in the ACC by overall record is your choice of Boston College, North Carolina, or NC State. In the Big Ten it's Maryland or Iowa. But in the Big 12, you're talking about potential games with West Virginia or Texas, which would draw far more interest and present far greater opportunity for Butch Jones and this program.
The Vols got what their youth and their mistakes deserved against Missouri. But this team can still deserve a thirteenth game. And from there, perhaps even more than before, they'll get another opportunity to build momentum for the future and leave games like last night behind.