In fact, both teams are looking for their first conference win, so at least one of them will be able to say “mission accomplished” by the time it’s all said and done. However, both teams should know how hard it is to win in this conference — let alone consistently win — so they better be ready for a fight.
Saturday’s game has all the makings of a high-scoring affair, so let’s waste no more time and dive into this week’s game preview.
- All-time series: Missouri leads the all-time series, 5-4, but has lost four out of the last six meetings.
- Largest margin of victory: Missouri beat Tennessee, 50-17, two years in a row (2017 & 2018).
- Longest win streak: The Tigers won the first three games of the series from 2012-2014.
- 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Vols currently have the 58th-ranked offense (82nd passing, 34th rushing) and the 45th-ranked defense (62nd passing, 37th rushing). They average 35.5 points per game and have allowed an average of 21.2 points per game. The Tigers have the 20th-ranked offense (12th passing, 72nd rushing) and the 116th-ranked defense (34th passing, 129th rushing). They average 38.8 points per game on offense and have allowed an average of 32.0 points per game.
What To Watch For
- Jabari Small, Tiyon Evans, and the Tigers’ buffet for a run defense: The Tigers are literally dead last in the country when it comes to defending the run, in case you didn’t notice the listed stat in the above “2021 offensive and defensive rankings” section. Josh Heupel said as recently as Wednesday that the Vols run game is the “secret sauce” to his offense, so expect the Vols to attack Mizzou in this regard and for Small and Evans to eat, as a result.
- Injured quarterbacks (still): Tennessee’s questions at quarterback have been a consistent theme for the last few years and it’s still holding up in 2021. Both Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker are currently injured. Per Heupel, Milton is close to 100 percent, but he didn’t provide an update on Hooker during Wednesday’s conference call. WBIR’s John Brice has reported that Hooker will start if healthy, however. Either way, it’s simple: This is a big game, so the Vols need their best option behind center, but that part is obviously out of their control, to an extent.
- Offensive fireworks: Both offenses score points and both offenses know how to pile up the yards. This matchup has a very good chance to eclipse 70 combined points, as long as both teams play a clean game.
- Tennessee’s secondary vs. Mizzou’s receivers: The Tigers love to spread the ball around through the air. 15 total players have logged a reception for the Tigers in 2021. 12 of the 15 are either a receiver or tight end and nine of those 12 are strictly receivers. Five of the aforementioned nine receivers have 10+ receptions and six of the nine have 100+ receiving yards on the year. Missouri can complete passes at every level, so it will be integral for the Vols secondary to be on its game this weekend.
- The red zone: Both teams are known for offense and it’s always nice when you can move the ball up and down the field. But everything gets thrown out the window once you move inside your opponent’s 20-yard line. The game becomes much harder and what you do in the red zone often impacts the outcome in a major way. The Tigers lead the NCAA in red zone offense, scoring either a touchdown or a field goal on all 15 trips. Just two of those trips ended with field goals. The Vols are 15-of-17 with 12 of those 15 trips ending with touchdowns. Getting a stop in the red area could mark the difference between a win and a loss this week.
- Quarterback: Just like last week against Florida, we won’t really know who suits up until either warm-ups or kickoff. Either way, their impact will be huge this week.
- Running backs: I know, I’m a cheating a bit here, too, but that’s just how it goes this week. The Vols will rely on heavy doses of Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans, as well they should. Tennessee also needs both players to continue to play effectively.
- WR Jimmy Calloway: Velus Jones Jr. probably makes more sense here, but I want to see how Calloway responds after last week’s egregious drop on fourth down.
- DE Tyler Baron: He’s been excellent through three games and will be key in keeping Bazelak uncomfortable.
- CB Warren Burrell: Burrell is going to see a variety of match ups on Saturday and he needs to be ready for every single one of them, because Bazelak and Eliah Drinkwitz aren’t afraid of exposing mismatches.
- DB Theo Jackson: This is Jackson’s third week as an impact player, but that’s what happens when you’re the best defender on the team and when the applicable week’s opponent spreads the ball around like Mizzou.
- QB Connor Bazelak: Last year’s SEC Freshman of the Year is off to a helluva start. He’s completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and has thrown for 10 touchdowns to just three picks.
- RB Tyler Badie: The third-year back is the SEC’s second-leading rusher and leads the team with 20 receptions and three receiving touchdowns, but will have a tough go of it this week against a stout Vols run defense.
- Wide receivers: It’s pick your poison when it comes to defending the receiving corps. The Tigers have guys who can win in the short passing game, on the intermediate levels, and who can run right by you for a deep pass.
- DL Isaiah McGuire: He leads all defensive linemen with 2.0 sacks and will be a tough task for a struggling Vols offensive line.
- LB Blaze Alldredge: Alldredge’s 2021 performance through the first few weeks is about as awesome as his first name. He leads the team in both total tackles (36) and sacks (4.0).
- S Jaylon Carlies: The lanky, rangy safety is exactly what Mizzou needed to develop after losing some key players in the secondary. He leads the team with two picks and it won’t be a surprise if he gets his hands on the ball when the Vols come to town.
Whew. You wanna talk about an offensive showdown?
The only thing that stops this game from getting into the high 30s and beyond is the 12PM EST kick, but even that won’t be much of an obstacle when it comes to these two offenses finding a rhythm.
We’ve seen what happens when the Vols play a team with a competent quarterback. You only have to go back to Week 2 when the Pittsburgh Panthers and Kenny Pickett came to town. Pickett was very, very good in that game and he’s the main reason why Pitt came away with a win.
The same goes for Bazelak and the Tigers. The Vols are going to have a tough time stopping him, but here’s the key: I don’t want to sound too old-school, but there is clear mismatch when it comes to Tennessee’s running game and Missouri’s run defense. If the Vols can find consistent success, then they can play keep away with Bazelak and limit his opportunities on the field. However, this strategy isn’t parallel with what the Vols like on offense - which is tempo. Lots and lots of tempo.
Will the Vols adjust their tendencies and their identity? It would be a remarkable sign of adaptability and proof that this coaching staff is willing to adapt to its opponents on a weekly basis. It will be interesting to see how the staff handles Saturday’s game plan.
There’s a lot to like here if you’re a fan of either team. There are matchups to exploit all over the place and as long as each team controls what it can control, then both teams will have a shot at winning by the time the clock hits zero.
With all this being said, I think the Vols come out and eke one out on the road in CoMo this weekend. The duo of Small and Evans will be too much and the defense will do just enough to slow Bazelak’s roll en route to a 3-2 record on the year.