The Tennessee Vols (4-4, 1-3 SEC) are traveling to Columbia, Missouri for the first time in program history to face off against the number-10 Missouri Tigers (7-1, 3-1 SEC) Saturday.
Tennessee is .500 for the first time after eight games since 2009, and Missouri has been one of the biggest surprises in the country this season with their strong start.
While both teams have taken big strides this season, they are both coming off of tough losses. Tennessee took a 45-10 drubbing at the hands of Alabama last week, and Missouri lost a heartbreaker 27-24 to South Carolina, blowing a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter in the process.
Both teams are facing uncertainty at quarterback. Tennessee starting quarterback Justin Worley is out indefinitely with an injured right (throwing) thumb, so true freshman Josh Dobbs will get his first career start after his debut in the second half last week. Missouri’s starter James Franklin is not likely to be recovered from a separated throwing shoulder, which means redshirt freshman Maty Mauk is the probable starter for the third consecutive week.
The young quarterbacks could be in for some trouble if they get careless with the ball, as the Tigers and Vols rank first and second respectively in the SEC in turnovers forced. Most of those turnovers have come from opportunistic secondaries that have combined to intercept 27 passes this season. Missouri’s E.J. Gaines and Kentrell Brothers and Tennessee’s Brian Randolph are tied for second in the SEC with three interceptions each.
Starting on the road against a top-10 team is not an ideal way for a true freshman to get broken in, but perhaps Dobbs can add a spark to a passing offense that ranks 110th nationally in yards per game. It is important to note that while the Tigers defensive backs have been able to pick off the passer, Missouri is last in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game at 284.2, so Dobbs could have opportunities to make plays through the air.
Dobbs appears to be a better running threat than Worley, so that could add another dimension to the Vols’ read option game against a tough run defense. If Missouri has to account for Dobbs keeping the ball, that will open up things for Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane and maybe poke some holes up front.
With an inexperienced quarterback, the performance of the offensive line is critical. Tennessee ranks fourth in the SEC in sacks allowed with eight and is averaging over 192 rushing yards per game, but they will face a stout test from the Missouri front seven. Missouri is first in the conference in sacks with 25 and third in rushing defense, giving up only 111.4 yards per game on the ground.
While Tiny Richardson‘s matchup with Jadeveon Clowney earlier in the year may have drawn more attention, Tiny’s ability to contain Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is just as important. Sam leads the SEC with 10 sacks and has arguably had the best season of any defender in the conference, so if the Vols want to keep Dobbs upright, they have to know where Sam is on every play.
Mauk has filled in admirably for Franklin, and while he may not be quite the same caliber as Franklin, this Mizzou offense is still a threat. They have a bevy of big receivers, with three of them standing over 6-4 and having over 400 yards receiving apiece. It is critical for the Vols to limit L’Damian Wahington, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Marcus Lucas from making plays down the field and to generate a pass rush on Missouri’s offensive line, which only ranks 10th in the SEC with 17 sacks allowed.
Missouri’s offense is as well-rounded as perhaps any in the country. To go with their stable of receivers, the Tigers also have three running backs with over 400 yards in Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, and Marcus Murphy. The Vols will have to be strong up the middle, so Daniel McCullers and A.J. Johnson need to have strong showings.
The winner of the game will likely be whichever team can rattle the opposing quarterback and protect their own. If either quarterback can get going and make some plays, the other team could be in for a long day.