The No. 5 ranked Tennessee Volunteers return to the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium for a potential rebound game against the reeling Missouri Tigers. Tennessee didn’t exactly wow anyone last weekend, when they suffered their first loss of the season to the Georgia Bulldogs.
The ratings systems have Tennessee as a huge favorite in this one. That being said...this could be a trickier game than anticipated for the Volunteers. Largely because Missouri actually does some things very well—things that could give Tennessee fits if they aren’t focused.
As a quick observation before we begin: Missouri is one of those teams where the record does not accurately reflect how well they’ve played. The Tigers are not world beaters. But they’ve lost four games by a single possession, and they’ve had downright horrible end-of-game luck in two of those (Auburn and Kentucky.) So while the Tigers might be 4-5 in the record book, they’ve played better than that.
FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)
Overall: 5th (Last Week: 5th)
Offense: 4th (Last Week: 2nd)
Defense: 25th (Last Week: 33rd)
Since it is the 10th game of the season, the rating systems will not be as wildly reactive to results. We have enough data to generally know how a team is going to perform and what they will put on the field. So even though Tennessee’s offense looked pedestrian against Georgia, the systems have seen what it does against other tough competition. In fact, Georgia’s position in those same ratings systems means that Tennessee really won’t get punished that much. After all, the Bulldogs have the No. 1 rated defense in the FPI. If Tennessee struggled on Saturday…well, that’s because they were supposed to, according to the numbers.
Without trying to excuse Tennessee‘s performance, I will say that it seems like the offense really struggled in short yardage situations. The Volunteers actually did an okay job of putting themselves into manageable yardage situations on third down. But for various reasons they were not able to make anything of it. While that is disappointing, it does indicate a better offensive showing than an outright blowout might.
If I had to pinpoint a few reasons for Missouri’s subpar record, all my answers would be on the offense. The Tigers simply aren’t very good. Much of it stems from their offensive line, which you will see below has not exactly had a banner year. But it’s also a product of a bad quarterback situation that has no good answer. Sophomore Brady Cook is the starter, and he’s trudged his way to a 6:7 TD:INT ratio. He has a high completion percentage but a low yards per attempt, which indicates they don’t trust him to throw deep. He does run a bit (232 yards, five touchdowns) but it’s not much.
Eli Drinkwitz’s system emphasizes the run more, which is unfortunate for Missouri’s wideouts. They actually do have some talent there! Dominic Lovett has gone for over 600 yards, and Luther Burden III was a huge recruiting win for Missouri last year. He’s dynamic and has superstar potential. But that’s just it—potential. Missouri’s struggles on the offensive line and under center have neutralized their ability to throw the ball.
FPI (Football Power Index)
Overall: 5th (Last Week: 5th)
Offensive Efficiency: 4th (Last Week: 3rd)
Defensive Efficiency: 35th (Last Week: 37th)
Special Teams Efficiency: 17th (Last Week: 15th)
I was a bit surprised about Tennessee’s defense somehow rising in both systems. If I had to hazard a guess, it’s likely because the Volunteers did have a much better second half than first.
But I will take a more pessimistic look here and say that I think Tennessee played the system a bit. I’m not saying they did it intentionally, I’m saying that the way the game sequence unfolded made Tennessee’s defense look better than it is.
I’m of the belief that Georgia could have scored more if they had maintained the same aggression they showed in the first half. Let’s face it, the Volunteers made Stetson Bennett look like Johnny Manziel out there for a second. The Bulldogs had a very good statistical day throwing deep, which has been their one weakness so far. In their first offensive drive coming out of half, the they marched down the field and were able to make it a 21-point ball game. After that, they literally did not attempt another pass. If they had, I think it could have seen the same results as it did to start the game.
Long story short: Tennessee’s defense did not have a good day. I’d even argue that their run defense had a worse than anticipated day. But, they fooled the systems, and so they won’t get punished as harshly as they should have.
Offensive Efficiency: 95th
Defensive Efficiency: 11th
Special Teams Efficiency: 35th
Missouri’s defense had arguably the biggest turnaround in the nation. Tennessee fans will fondly remember last season’s contest, where the Volunteers racked up 683 yards of offense and ran the Tigers off the field—to the tune of a 62-24 final score. That was, in retrospect, the coming out party for Tennessee’s offense.
I very much doubt that’s going to happen this Saturday. Thanks to some key transfer portal additions and the hiring of defensive coordinator Blake Baker, the Tigers have catapulted their way into the top half of defenses in the SEC.
They do it with their front seven. The Tigers are very aggressive at the line, and refuse to let teams run the ball on them with ease. They don’t have the game breaking talent that Georgia does, but they are a smart football team and they’ve frustrated the better rushing offenses in the SEC. They are not afraid to blitz—though some of that may be trying to compensate for a lack of pass rush options.
Tennessee is going to need a much better game from Hendon Hooker and the receivers. The Volunteers left points on the field last week, and they still seem to get a bit out of rhythm if they don’t connect on some early shots. That can’t happen against Missouri. We saw what happens to Tennessee’s offense when the run game is not a viable threat.
Football Outsiders Line Stats
A small regression in both offensive and defensive sack rates. Tennessee’s offensive line overall had a rough day against Georgia, which was disappointing to see. Alas, the Bulldogs are still extremely talented and have the ability to shift into another gear.
The defensive line gets helped out here by Missouri’s tendency to blitz and send help. Still, they have held up well this season.
These offensive line red marks are where things go wrong. You can get by with an average offensive line and still run your system. You cannot get by when you rank outside the top 100 in multiple categories.
FPI: Tennessee, 92.8%
FEI: Tennessee, 92.5% — Projected Score (37.2-15.9, Tennessee)
SP+: Tennessee, 87% — Projected Score (37-18, Tennessee)