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Tennessee at Missouri Preview: Fully Operational

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If Tennessee's offense has played to the level of its competition, we should see a banged-up but capable attack again Saturday night.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

By the time we're done, Tennessee should play six of the Top 20 defenses in the nation in yards per play allowed.  On Saturday we'll face our fourth Top 7 defense in that category:

  • #3 Alabama - 4.20 ypp allowed
  • #4 Missouri - 4.30
  • #6 Oklahoma - 4.42
  • #7 Florida - 4.44
  • #16 Georgia - 4.71
  • #19 Vanderbilt - 4.82

And if you were to rank Tennessee's offensive performances against power conference opponents, it would go like this:

  • Kentucky - 6.99 ypp
  • Florida - 5.99
  • Georgia - 5.77
  • South Carolina - 5.44
  • Arkansas - 5.21
  • Alabama - 4.97
  • Oklahoma - 3.34
But if you were to rank how you felt about the offense after each game, the order would be slightly different.  4.97 yards in Tuscaloosa were worth more than 5+ at home against Arkansas and South Carolina (or the 5.38 against North Texas).  And we all know how the Oklahoma game ended, but the Tennessee offense that built the 17-0 lead?  We love those guys.

So setting aside the Kentucky blowout - which is a point away from being the biggest win in any SEC game this year (after Georgia +32 over South Carolina) - Tennessee's best offensive work against power conference teams has come against Top 20 defenses from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the first half of the Oklahoma game.

There's a conversation here about playing to the level of our opponent, but considering the level of the defense we're going to see Saturday night it shouldn't be an issue this week.

Tennessee is banged up.  Many of the pieces involved should play, including Jashon Robertson and Brett Kendrick on the offensive line, who the Vols have won without the last couple of weeks.  But I doubt any of those guys are playing at 100%.  This includes Josh Dobbs, who ran it 14-18 times against Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Oklahoma.  There is no doubt Dobbs' feet are the most critical component in the Volunteer offense.

With Dobbs banged up the Vols have used him less the last three weeks because they've needed him less.  It worked spectacularly against Kentucky, less so against South Carolina and North Texas.  Perhaps there's an argument here that, when facing what is in yards per play an even worse offense than North Texas, we might be able to win another 9-6 affair and maybe we don't use Dobbs as much this week either.  But I think that would be an incredibly dangerous game to play, and on the road in an emotional environment against this defense we're already living dangerously.

If Dobbs is physically able, Tennessee will need his legs to win this game.  Missouri has a great defense, but the Vols have been effective against great defenses multiple times this year.  And specifically, I think the Vols can do some things to bother Mizzou the same way Dak Prescott and Mississippi State did; the Bulldog senior only had 47 tough yards on 14 rushing attempts, but simply the threat of him running the ball opened up things for MSU in the passing game where he landed 27 of 40 passes for 303 yards and 4 touchdowns.  Dobbs shouldn't need something that big to get it done, but should be capable of hurting Missouri's defense.

It will take a banged up quarterback and a banged up offense line, which will need to improve on the six sacks it allowed to Missouri's defense last year.  But utilizing Dobbs in the ground game is a great way to keep Tennessee on schedule and out of the passing situations that allowed the Tigers to pin their ears back on him last year.  This line, as we saw against Alabama, is still not built to hold up very long in protecting a pocket passer against a great defense.

Whatever is going to happen in Columbia, you want Tennessee to win or lose throwing their best punches offensively.  Even with much of their identity continuing to look a lot like risk management, Tennessee needs to have all of their options to manage.  This offense isn't as healthy across the board as it was in September or October.  But it can still operate effectively against the better defenses in the country.  And if it can do so again, the Vol defense should have enough on the other side to give Tennessee a big win.