Despite Tennessee’s sideline looking like a M.A.S.H. unit at times with the injuries that have been piling up, the Vols were able to get back in the win column for the first time in over a month with a victory over Southern Miss last week.
Now, it’s back to the SEC schedule as Tennessee heads to Columbia to take on the Missouri Tigers on Saturday night. The Vols will be looking for back-to-back wins and their first conference win of the season as they try to take down a Tigers squad that has been catching fire lately.
How can Tennessee break even on the year and avoid having a losing streak to every other SEC team? Check out this handy-dandy foolproof plan for a Big Orange ‘W’:
PUT LOCK ON LOCKDOWN
Tennessee is coming into this week with a passing defense that ranks first in the SEC and fourth in the nation. The Vols’ secondary will be facing (arguably) their most daunting challenge of the season in Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock.
Lock leads the nation in passing touchdowns with 31 and is first in the SEC in passing yards with 2,795. Expect Lock to consistently go after the Tennessee secondary with intermediate to deep throws throughout the game to go-to receivers J’Mon Moore and Emanuel Hall — the two are second and third in the SEC in receiving yards, respectively.
Tennessee’s front seven must get penetration into the backfield and make Lock uncomfortable in the pocket if it doesn’t want to be turned into Swiss cheese by the Tigers’ passing game.
The bad news on that front is that Mizzou has one of the best pass-protecting offensive lines in the country and has only allowed eight sacks on the season.
The return of defensive end Darrell Taylor has been relieving for the Vols’ pass rush. Taylor and Kyle Phillips each had two sacks apiece against Southern Miss, and the pair needs to build off of that this week.
The Vols did a great job of containing a capable Southern Miss passing game last week, and they need that same type of performance on Saturday if they have any hope of coming away with a road win.
TRY TO SUSTAIN (ANY) DRIVES
Going hand-in-hand with containing Lock is making sure that the Tennessee offense can sustain some drives so the Vols’ defense has a fighting chance.
While the orange and white defense played well (for the most part) against Southern Miss, the offense left a lot to be desired when it wasn’t gifted a short field off a turnover.
Outside of a nine-play, 49-yard touchdown drive — set up by a long Evan Berry kickoff return — to start the game, Tennessee could not get many lengthy scoring drives going.
If the Vols can’t put together consistent scoring drives, don’t surprised if Mizzou starts licking its chops and turns this contest into a repeat of the Tigers’ game against Florida. The Gators offense was hampered by the quarterback play of Malik Zaire and its inability to get into the end zone, and that game was all-Mizzou before lunchtime was over.
With persistent offensive line issues, depth concerns and lingering questions over the health of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee’s offense may be in dire straits come Saturday.
There is some hope for the Vols’ offense, though.
Mizzou may be lighting up the box score on offense, but there are still issues on the defensive side of the ball, despite some improvements as the season has progressed.
In their five losses, the Tigers have given up an average of 295 passing and 240 rushing yards per game. However, against a struggling Florida team, the Tigers were much more stout, holding the Gators to under 100 yards rushing and keeping quarterbacks Zaire and Feleipe Franks in check for a combined 256 yards passing.
Tennessee is going to have to hope that Guarantano will be physically capable of producing an efficient game and that his pass protection will shield him from the likes of Mizzou’s Terry Beckner Jr. (six sacks) and Marcell Frazier (3.5 sacks). If both of these factors hold true, Tennessee’s passing game should have a chance of reeling off some plays on Mizzou’s suspect secondary.
Fans have not seen as much from a Guarantano-led offense as they would’ve liked to see, but we do know that it can move the ball with him at quarterback — just maybe not consistently. But, if Tennessee can make Mizzou’s defense account for the passing game, then it only leads for opportunities to expose Missouri’s rushing defense.
It’s an obvious strategy that has been talked about ad nauseum before different games this season, but Tennessee cannot allow Missouri to stack the box and focus on the run game because the Vols can’t establish a passing threat worth respecting. If that can’t change on Saturday, then it will be a long, cold night in Columbia.