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Why Missouri Will be the True Measuring Stick for the Vols

Games against Florida, Georgia, and Alabama are certainly pivotal games for the Vols. But Tennessee should know where they stand from a talent and depth standpoint once they take on Missouri.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers have a handful of "swing games" on their schedule heading into the 2015 season. Whichever team is viewed as the favorite when Tennessee faces Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, and Oklahoma won't be a huge favorite, and the line for those games will likely be within one touchdown.

While all the games mentioned above will be pivotal for the Vols this season, one of the most important games will come at the tail-end of the schedule. When the Vols take the field on November 21st in Columbia, Missouri, their mettle will be tested.

By the time the Vols take on the Missouri Tigers in the second-to-last game of the regular season, all the other "big" games on their schedule will have been played. The Vols will have faced all but Vanderbilt when they play the Tigers, and Tennessee's depth beyond the two-deep depth chart will be crucial.

The Vols will face Missouri on the Tigers' home turf, and the road has not been kind to Tennessee in conference play over the last few seasons. Since the start of the 2012 season, the Vols have gone 3-9 on the road in SEC play with two of those victories coming against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Tennessee's lone road victory not against those two teams came last season in overtime against South Carolina.

Additionally, when the Vols face off against Missouri, their SEC East title hopes could still be in flux. Depending on the results of the Florida and Georgia games, Tennessee could still be in the running for the SEC East crown when they play Missouri.

As mentioned earlier this week, Missouri has owned the Vols since joining the SEC in 2012. Tennessee has yet to defeat the Tigers, but the talent edge may finally have shifted over to the Vols in 2015. The Vols certainly have the talent in their starting 11 on both sides of the ball to compete with essentially every team on their schedule in 2015, but it's their depth that will determine the outcome of games. This depth has been one of the key factors in the past match-ups with Missouri, as the Vols have often been worn down or hit with injuries by the time they face the Tigers.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones and his staff have done all they can to replenish the depth on Tennessee's roster in the short time they've been in Knoxville, and they have done an admirable job thus far. And according to recruiting services, the Vols should finally be on par with or surpass the Tigers from a talent and depth perspective this season.

From the 2013 recruiting class onward, the Tigers have brought in the 43rd, 39th, and 25th ranked recruiting classes in the country according to 247Sports. Conversely, the Vols have hauled in the 24th, 7th, and 4th ranked classes in those same years. Tennessee should finally have the depth to last an entire season without seeing a significant drop-off in performance, and that will play a huge role when Tennessee takes on Missouri in late November.

Missouri won't be Tennessee's toughest opponent in 2015. They won't even be the most talented team the Vols will face. But by the time the Tigers come on to Tennessee's schedule, the Vols will have already faced a grueling stretch of games that will leave them battle-scarred. Their SEC East title hopes could be on the line when they match up with Missouri, testing not only their physical resolve, but also their mental tenacity.

For these reasons, Missouri will be the true measuring stick for Tennessee's depth and determination in 2015. SEC road games are always tough, and the Vols will be tested in every conceivable way when they travel to Columbia to take on the Tigers.