Tennessee will look to extend its winning streak to three games when they host Missouri this weekend. After three consecutive losses, the Vols responded with back-to-back victories over Tennessee Tech and Kentucky. On the other hand, Missouri won its first conference game of the season, beating Vanderbilt 27-16 and ending a five game losing streak. While Tennessee is still fighting for a berth to Atlanta, Missouri has dealt with its share of disappointment this season, but will have the opportunity to potentially play spoiler this week.
For the Tigers to pull off the upset, they will need a big game out of the passing offense. The same can be said for Tennessee and its secondary. The unit must come ready to play and stop a Tiger offense that enjoys throwing the football. Missouri’s 37.8 pass attempts per game ranks second in the SEC.
Sophomore quarterback Drew Lock has had an up and down season (typically what happens when an underclassman is relied on to lead an SEC team), with the majority of his good performances coming against the soft parts of Missouri’s schedule. While he’s proven to be a talented quarterback at times, issues with accuracy and decision making have led to more struggles than the Tigers may have hoped. On the year, Lock has thrown for 2,811 yards (leads the SEC) to go along with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Those numbers are a tad misleading, though. Of his 21 touchdowns, 10 came in blowout victories over Eastern Michigan and Delaware State. In the other eight games, he threw less than two touchdowns in half of those contests. In addition, while his passing yards may lead the conference, his completion percentage (54.5 percent) is amongst the bottom four in the SEC. He’s only completed at least 60 percent of his passes in three games.
Fortunately for Missouri, one of Drew Lock’s better games came against Vanderbilt this past weekend. He finished 22-of-37 for 294 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Ironically, this also resulted in the Tigers’ lone conference win. Lock relied heavily on his star wide receiver J’mon Moore in this game. The junior finished with eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns, including an 82 yard score where he used his speed to get past every level of the defense. On the season, Moore’s 743 receiving yards rank second in the SEC and he’s hauled in eight touchdowns. After five consecutive quiet games (which included being benched against Kentucky and South Carolina), Missouri’s top playmaker is back from the shadows. With the speed to take the top off a defense, Tennessee’s secondary must be dialed in on containing Moore.
For the Vols, they finally have the leader of their secondary back. Last week against Kentucky, Cam Sutton came back after missing much of the season with an ankle injury. He broke up two passes and the unit as a whole limited the Wildcats to under 200 passing yards. The pass defense has taken some criticism over the year and one could argue those struggles were due to injuries. While Sutton’s return certainly helps, it won’t solve all the issues. Outside of Sutton, the rest of the unit has been inconsistent. Ironically, Tennessee sits in the top 30 for both passing yards allowed per game (201.4 yards) and yards allowed per pass (6.6 yards). When it comes to the eye test, it’s hard to consider the secondary as a top 25-to-30 unit in the country — especially given the amount of 20-plus yard plays that have been allowed. Whether it be from missed tackles, poor coverage or lack of help from the safeties, the Vols are vulnerable to the big play and that’s been evident in past weeks. It is critical for safeties Todd Kelly Jr. and Micah Abernathy to stay in position throughout this upcoming matchup.
Going up against a playmaker such as J’mon Moore, Tennessee must avoid such mistakes because a talent like Moore will make them pay. This doesn’t mean Cam Sutton needs to shadow Missouri’s star wide receiver or anything of that manner, especially since he’s still dealing with an injured ankle. But help from the safety on Moore’s side of the field and accepting the underneath routes will help limit the possibility for a defensive breakdown.
Missouri’s passing attack as a whole may not be a big concern and Drew Lock isn’t a name that should scare anyone, but the offensive line has done a good job of providing a clean pocket (1.2 sacks allowed per game best in SEC). If the pass rush isn’t getting home and plays are extended, Tennessee will need to make sure to stay disciplined in its coverages. Limiting success off these type of situations is just as important as avoiding the big plays. The Vols have a better chance of beating themselves than being overmatched by the Tigers’ offense. However, asking for a disciplined Tennessee defense is a tough task.
Given Missouri’s porous defense, Tennessee should have no problem putting up around 50 points again this week. With that being said, the Tigers will surely rely heavily on Drew Lock and the passing game. Depending on how much success they have will be the difference between a blowout and a close margin. For Tennessee, limiting the big plays and containing J’mon Moore are big factors for the heavy home favorites to secure what should be an easy win.
Edited by Dalton King
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics