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Tennessee staff talks Missouri’s improved defense

This unit is night and day from last year.

NCAA Football: Abilene Christian at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee is looking for a bounceback game, coming off of a disappointing performance against No. 1 Georgia. The Volunteers were hit in the mouth, and for the first time all season long, couldn’t really get back up. The Bulldogs played as advertised — physical and absolutely dominant on defense.

The Volunteers scored a season-low 13 points against Georgia, never finding any sort of groove. Pre-snap penalties, pressure and just flat out elite man coverage were too much for Tennessee to overcome.

Tennessee gets to come back home this week, set to host the Missouri Tigers. Now everything is on the line every week, and the Vols need to be convincing to crack that top four of the College Football Playoff rankings once again. That means snapping right back into what they’ve done all season long — scoring points in bunches.

“I think what slowed us down on Saturday was us,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said of the offensive issues against Georgia. “Pre-snap penalties, not executing in critical times in the red zone. Again, going back to the pre-snap penalties. But in terms of a blueprint, man, I think they’ve (Georgia) got really good players. I think there’s a lot of teams in this league that have really good players. We’ve played really good players. They played better than us on Saturday.

“The environment was, at times, not handled well by us, both players and coaches.”

Now Tennessee is set to face a sneaky good unit that was just downright atrocious last season. The Missouri defense has taken a big step forward this season under new defensive coordinator Blake Baker. The Tigers currently are in the top 15 in total defense, a far cry from the group that Tennessee completely destroyed last season in Columbia.

They’ll be looking to play spoiler on Senior Day in Knoxville this Saturday.

“You can’t do things that hurt yourself in this ballgame, for sure,” Josh Heupel said of Missouri’s defense. “The physicality. They play vertical on the line of scrimmage. Loaded boxes on tape. We have to be physical. Our combinations have to be right. Our identifications have to be right. That’s going to be absolutely critical in this football game. Tight ends have to do a great job of it, as well. They’re always a part of the game when we’re in 11-personnel sets.”

Tennessee ran wild last season against Missouri, but it’ll be tougher sledding this time around. They’ve gone from near the bottom of the barrel, to 19th in the FBS this season. That’s a dramatic improvement.

Remember, this is the unit that shut Georgia down a few weeks back, nearly powering a massive upset in Columbia.

“I think our running backs have to be extremely physical in this football game, too,” Heupel continued. “They’re much improved on the defensive side of the football. You look at them statistically, you look how the games have played out, the last two thirds of the season, the video you see. It’s a group — I’m talking about their (defensive) unit — that continues to get better and more comfortable in Year One with a new defensive coordinator.”

Missouri also ranks 26th in passing yards allowed, so there’s not exactly a glaring weakness here. Still, they have a tough task ahead, facing Tennessee’s (still) top-ranked offense. Heupel and company have demolished better defenses than this all season long, last weekend aside.

The oddsmakers believe that they will do the same. Tennessee remains a 20.5 point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook as of Thursday night.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.