The Vols get their second-straight SEC matchup at home when they take on the Missouri Tigers in Week 5. This will be Tennessee’s fourth home game in five weeks to open the 2020 season (if there is a full schedule) and the second of seven straight SEC matchups.
Can the Vols start a win streak of their own with another win over the Tigers?
2019 in review
Final Record: 6-6 (3-5), t-8th SEC
Final National Ranking: N/A
The 2019 season was a disappointment before it even began for the Tigers. The program was hit with a one-year postseason ban in January after the NCAA discovered academic violations.
There was serious momentum heading into 2019 after the Tigers won five of their last six regular season contests to finish the 2018 season with an 8-4 record. Kelly Bryant’s decision to transfer to CoMo helped ease the loss of Drew Lock and promoted the idea that the team’s biggest question was answered.
A 5-1 start had folks around the program feeling good, but the wheels came off shortly thereafter. A painful loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores kickstarted a five-game losing streak that helped the Tigers fall to 6-6 on the season. Head coach Barry Odom was fired after the season finale against Arkansas and Eli Drinkwitz was hired to take over.
The Tigers’ offense was not good, even with Bryant at the helm. The unit finished 93rd in total yards and points per game (25.4). When you look at the numbers from the 2019 season, there’s not much to like offensively. The unit underperformed in every major category.
Bryant wasn’t the solution like people thought and the whole offense in general didn’t click. As a result, Missouri had one of the least-efficient offenses in the SEC.
The defense, on the other hand, was pretty good. It allowed the 14th-fewest yards in the country and finished 34th in Football Outsider’s defensive FEI rating. The secondary was one of the best units in the NCAA. It finished sixth in passing yards allowed and ninth in passing efficiency defense. The rushing defense wasn’t bad, either. It allowed the 31st-fewest yards per game and held opponent to 3.77 yards per carry, which was 36th. Missouri was a top-25 team when it came to third down defense, allowing a 33% completion rate.
Junior Nick Bolton finished with the third-most tackles in the SEC (100), which also led the way for the Tigers. Senior Kobie Whiteside led the team with 7.5 sacks in his first full year as a starter. Linebacker Cale Garrett led the team with three interceptions in his final season.
Tucker McCann matched his 2018 accuracy of 72.7% on field goal attempts. He went 16-of-22 and also handled punting duties in 2019.
Who left and who’s new?
Bryant is gone and that means the starting position is up for grabs. Drinkwitz even said not too long ago that quarterback is “probably the biggest question mark” on Missouri’s roster. There are four options in Shawn Robinson, Taylor Powell, Connor Bazelak, and Brady Cook. Robinson is a transfer from TCU and sat out the 2019 season. Powell and Bazelak had some playing experience in 2019. Cook is the only one with no experience because he’s a true freshman.
The word is that all three have a shot at the starting job, but Robinson is currently the favorite. Conversely, the running back position isn’t as ambiguous.
Larry Rountree III returns for his senior season and he is 1,445 yards away from finishing as Missouri’s all-time leading rusher. He had a down year after rushing for 1,200 yards in 2018, but should receive a boost due to the presence of Drinkwitz. Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State’s lead back and now-Tennessee Titan led the Sun Belt in 2019 with 1,480 rushing yards and 1,678 yards from scrimmage. Tyler Badie, Dawson Downing, and Simi Bakare all return, as well.
The Tigers brought in six new receivers —including two grad transfers— to help breathe some life into a receiving corps that amassed just 1,742 yards between seven different receivers. To put that into context, Jauan Jennings finished with 969 receiving yards by himself. If you’re not good at math like me - that’s over half the total yards recorded by Mizzou’s entire receiving corps.
Jonathan Nance, the team’s leading receiver from 2019 is gone. Damon Hazelton, the grad transfer from Virginia Tech, will likely take over the No. 1 spot. Jalen Knox was recently listed as one of the 10 most important players for the 2020 season, so I’m sure he will be in the mix throughout the year.
Albert Okwuegbunam leaves a gaping hole at tight end after he declared early for the NFL Draft. Daniel Parker Jr. is a converted defensive end and has shown promise, but is still learning the position. He should be a fine option if he continues to develop. Messiah Swinson is a monster at 6-foot-7, 255-pounds, but is a work in progress. Niko Hea caught a few balls last year, so he can play when called upon. While Parker Jr. is likely the starter, the Tigers will need to figure out the order behind him before the season starts.
The offensive line will undergo changes in 2020, much like the rest of the offense. Three of the five starters from 2019 are gone, but the good news is the guys taking their place(s) have experience. Larry Borom, Case Cook, and Hyrin White all started games last year, but what happens with White will be interesting. Borom took over at right tackle, where White started two games. Will he replace Yasir Durant at left tackle? If so, that will be a transition to monitor. The Tigers brought in four offensive linemen to help provide depth, but none are really expected to make a serious contribution —outside of injury— in 2020.
The Tigers are likely look at a very experienced starting defensive line in 2020, even after losing Jordan Elliot. Kobie Whiteside anchors the defensive line and is looking to build off a 7.5 sack season in 2019. Chris Turner and Tre Williams —who combined for three sacks in 2019— should be the starting defensive ends. Akial Byers should line up next to Whiteside on the interior, but don’t rule out sophomore Isaiah McGuire. He cracked the rotation as a true freshman and showed a ton of promise, playing in half of Missouri’s games. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts in 2020.
Bolton is back to lead the defensive unit from the middle linebacker spot. This dude is a monster. Not only does he rack up tackles, but he’s very good in pass coverage. In fact, he and Isaiah Simmons were the only two linebackers in the country with a run defense and pass defense grade of 80+, according to Pro Football Focus. He should be a first round draft pick in 2021.
Missouri’s secondary got an unexpected boost from Jarivs Ware in 2019 and he’s back with a full year of playing time under his belt. Look for him to become one of the SEC’s top corners this year. Adam Sparks is a big corner with good football IQ, but needs to be meaner and more aggressive on the field. Ennis Rakestraw is the Tigers’ lone DB recruit and probably won’t fit into the game plan too often in 2020.
Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie form one of the stronger safety tandems in the country. Both return for 2020.
Breakout players for 2020
LB Nick Bolton - Look, Bolton is great, but odds are that if you don’t follow Missouri, you’ve never heard of him. I’ll be honest, I had to look him up for a refresher as I wrote this out. He’s also considered by some as the second-best linebacker in the country, so I can see why it’s questionable to consider him as a breakout candidate. Regardless, most fans probably don’t know who he is, but they certainly will after 2020.
DT Isaiah McGuire - There’s definitely a chance that Byers opens the season as the DT2, but I think McGuire will do just enough early on to make him a starter. Byers is a very talented kid, but hasn’t lived up to said talent. If he continues to underperform while McGuire continues to ascend, then you better believe this coaching staff with a new defensive coordinator will likely make the switch.
CB Jarvis Ware - He didn’t record an interception in 11 games last year, but that will change. Ware is an up-and-coming player who will put in the work to get better. We will see him get better and better as 2020 moves along.
It feels like the defense is in a pretty good spot, but the offense may have issues in 2020. Drinkwitz will be the key to getting the offense rolling. But that’s going to be really hard considering how this offseason has developed.
The worst about Missouri’s current situation is that the Coronavirus has obviously affected all offseason programs in the country. This is probably the worst offseason that a team that with a brand new head coach, new offensive and defensive system, new quarterback, and a lot of other new players could face.
Throw all of this on top of the fact that the Tigers play in the SEC and it could be a long year in CoMo. Drinkwitz will certainly earn his salary this year, that’s for sure.