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Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel previews Missouri

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NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Now at 2-2 on the year, all focus now shifts to the Missouri Tigers for Tennessee. The Volunteers started SEC play with a 38-14 loss on the road to the Florida Gators, and now must find a way to bounceback over the next two weeks with swing games on deck.

The first of those toss-up type matchups comes against Missouri, coached by Eliah Drinkwitz. The Tigers had some hype entering the season, but to this point, it’s been a bit of a letdown. Missouri dropped a tough road game to Boston College last weekend in overtime, and also have already lost a game in conference to Kentucky.

Now Missouri, just like Tennessee, is looking to get their season back on the rails before it’s too late. Drinkwitz has jolted the Missouri offense back to life behind the arm of quarterback Connor Bazelak, who has thrown for 1,200 yards and ten touchdowns so far in 2021. He’s completing nearly 70 percent of his passes, and has thrown just three interceptions.

Running back Tyler Badie is also on his way to having a big year, already with 417 yards rushing and five scores on the season. The 5-8 senior from Memphis is averaging 6.3 yards per carry, which has Josh Heupel’s full attention this week.

“For them offensively, everything kind of goes through that running back, whether it’s the run game or him being heavily involved in the pass game,” Heupel said of Badie. “A guy that’s been dynamic, near the top of the country in total yards and productivity. Really good football player. Does a great job once the ball is in his hands of being electric, making guys miss.”

Badie had a big game against Central Michigan to start the season, putting up over 200 yards rushing. However, in games against Kentucky and Boston College, he failed to top 75 yards, averaging under 4.5 yards per carry in each game. Badie has remained involved in the passing game throughout, racking up 20 catches already.

Missouri can win offensively in a couple of different ways, and will obviously provide a challenge to the Tennessee defense. The question is, can the Volunteers take advantage on the other side of the ball? The Tigers rank near the bottom of the barrell in total defense, checking in at No. 115 in the FBS, though it’s a small sample size. Central Michigan was able to score 24, while Southeast Missouri scored 28. Boston College went for 41, while Kentucky scored 35.

Can an inconsistent Tennessee offense finally find a groove against the Tigers?

“There’s been some explosives in the run and the pass game against them,” Heupel said of the Missouri defense. “I think they’ve gotten better as time has gone on the first four weeks, understanding their scheme, fitting things better. They’re a group that has continued to improve.”

Tennessee’s plan at quarterback remains unclear, with both Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker now dealing with injuries. Milton received the first two starts, while Hooker got the next two after Milton exited the Pittsburgh game. If both are full strength, what will Heupel choose?

The Vols have Missouri and South Carolina coming up over the next couple of weeks — both key swing games that could tell us quite a bit about what this team’s final record could end up being. With Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia looming, getting one of these next two is a must.

Missouri opened as a three point home favorite over Tennessee. Kickoff is set for noon ET on SEC Network.