In 2018, Tennessee sat at 5-5 after ten games with only Missouri and Vanderbilt standing between them and a bowl berth. It, uh, didn’t end well.
Fast forward a year and here they are again, sitting at 5-5 with only Missouri and Vanderbilt standing between them and a bowl berth. But all signs point to this year being drastically different from last year. Last year, consistency was an issue all season, and it showed at the worst possible time when the finish line was in sight. This year, Tennessee is playing as well as they have in a couple of years.
A bowl game is finally within reach again, and not a moment too soon.
With that said, they aren’t there yet. They still need one more win to clinch a bowl bid and those oh-so valuable extra days of practice. Their first opportunity will come in Columbia, Mo. against the Tigers.
Here’s what you need to know.
Missouri’s Season So Far
If not for the post-season ban, Missouri could have passed for a legitimate contender for the SEC East division to open the season. They started with a weird game against Wyoming in Wyoming for some reason? It was a game they should’ve won, but they gave up three turnovers, didn’t force any, and gave up 300 yards on the ground en route to a 37-31 loss.
After that, though, they went on a tear.
West Virginia, Southeast Missouri State, South Carolina, Troy, and Ole Miss all rolled into Columbia and got sent home with a definitive loss. Missouri won each game by an average of 29 points on their way to top-25 status and a 5-1 record.
Then it all started to fall apart.
They’ve been outscored 100=27 in losses to Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida the past five weeks. Maybe it was injuries. Or maybe it was the looming reality of not getting a post-season regardless of how they play. Or maybe it was a noticeable lack of leadership finally rearing it’s ugly head. One thing is for sure, after reading message boards and Missouri fan sites for an hour, I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what has happened to this Missouri team.
Which leads them to their match up against Tennessee.
Coming into the season, Kelly Bryant was one of the most talked about names in the SEC. The transfer quarterback from Clemson was supposed to be the saving grace in a Missouri offense that needed to replace Drew Lock’s almost 3,700 yards and 34 touchdowns from 2018. He hasn’t quite lived up to that standard, mostly due to nagging injuries, but he’s still middle of the pack of SEC quarterbacks in almost every passing statistic. He leads the conference in quarterback rushing attempts, despite playing one fewer game than Kellen Mond and Bo Nix, who lead the conference in quarterback rushing yards. The takeaway? Bryant isn’t afraid to use his legs to extend a play.
One of Bryant’s greatest strengths as a quarterback is he isn’t afraid to find different receivers. Missouri currently has six players with 15-plus receptions and 270-plus receiving yards. By comparison, Tennessee only has three. Jonathan Nance is the leader of the bunch as a tight end turned wide receiver. He converted to receiver (probably) because of Albert Okwuegbunam. The 6 and a half foot tall tight end will probably snag his 100th career reception on Saturday (he’s currently sitting at 98) and currently leads Missouri in touchdown receptions with six.
Then there’s running backs Tyler Badie and Larry Rountree III. Badie is a 5’9″ scat back who can run as well as catch out of the backfield. He currently leads the team in receptions with 30, so Bryant loves to use him as a check down. And remember Rountree? The guy who had 155 yards on 18 carries against Tennessee in 2017 and 135 yards on 26 carries against Tennessee last year? Yeah, he’s back this year and averaging about five yards a carry on 500 carries. Tennessee will need to lock him down if they want any chance of winning.
All things considered, though, Missouri’s offense has only managed 27 points in their last four games, so to say they’re in a slump is an understatement.
Missouri’s defense is the strength of their team, and to say they could have been elite at the start of the season would be an understatement. Then their defensive captain, Cale Garrett, went out with a pectoral injury that ended his season. Since then, their defense has allowed almost three more yards per play than when Garrett was on the field.
With the absence of Garrett, Nick Bolton and Kobie Whiteside have come to the forefront. Bolton has contributed five picks from the linebacker position and has 84 total tackles on the year, good for twice as much as anyone else on the team. Defensive tackle Whiteside has 22 total tackles and leads the team with seven sacks from the interior.
In their last five games against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida, Missouri has given up an average of 368 yards, 25 points, and forced four turnovers. Ole Miss, Georgia, and Florida have serviceable to good offenses, but allowing Kentucky and Vanderbilt to respectively break out for 360 and 315 yards is a tough look.
A strong start to the season has since tapered off for this unit, but they’re still a top-20 defense in the country.
Not much to see here. Barry Odom may be on the hot seat after their last few games and Derek Dooley is still a quote machine. Here’s his latest gem…
“We’re kind of, a little bit, in football hell right now. What’s the quote? When you’re marching through hell, keep going.”
Yeah, good luck with all that, Coach.
This game could go either way, to be honest. Missouri’s defense has the talent to hang with anybody in the country, and Tennessee’s defense has been going through a renaissance of their own the past few weeks. On the other hand, Tennessee’s offense is hit or miss, and Missouri’s offense is slumping something awful.
This feels like the type of game that could come down to who hits the most field goals and turns the ball over the least. At the time of writing, the over/under is set at 45.5, which seems high for these two teams. Both teams can lock up a bowl bid with a win, so whoever wants it more will likely have the advantage down the stretch.
Just kidding, Missouri can’t go to a bowl game this year. Last sentence burn!