If Missouri has a twin in the SEC East, Tennessee might be the closest thing to it.
We can begin with the easy number to compare: Both teams are 5-5. Included in those identical records are big losses to Georgia and Florida, the division’s top two teams this season. Both teams have wins against South Carolina. There are also multiple games the Volunteers and Tigers could have and probably should have won. Both opened the season with a loss to a lesser opponent, Wyoming for Missouri and Georgia State for Tennessee.
However, a closer look reveals one team trending up and another trending decidedly down.
Missouri heads into this weekend’s meeting riding a four-game losing streak. Tennessee, coming off a bye, has won four of its past five. The Volunteers’ only loss over that stretch came against Alabama.
On Saturday, the pair of 5-5 teams will face off at 6:30 p.m. in Columbia. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
The Tigers have won each of the past two matchups against Tennessee with the exact same score: 50-17. One of those victories came against former Volunteers coach Butch Jones. The other came against Jeremy Pruitt, who is now in his second season leading Tennessee.
Missouri could very well make it three in a row this weekend at Memorial Stadium despite the way the two teams are trending. Unlike the Tigers’ past two games against ranked opponents Georgia and Florida, winning this game against the Volunteers is not nearly as lofty a goal.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy, either. Not if Missouri’s offense plays as poorly as it has over the past month.
On defense, Tennessee has playmakers that could give the Tigers some problems. Senior defensive back Nigel Warrior leads the SEC with four interceptions on the year, leading an opportunistic secondary that has picked off 14 passes this season, tied for the third-most in the country.
This propensity for picks will force Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant to focus on ball security, perhaps more than other weeks.
The Volunteers’ defense also features the conference’s sack leader in redshirt senior linebacker Darrell Taylor, who has seven on the year. That’s one more than Missouri defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside, who leads the Tigers.
Taylor has proven a disruptive force this season no matter where he is on the field. The linebacker from Virginia has broken up four passes, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble. Missouri’s offensive linemen will have their hands full when trying to block him.
But not many other Tennessee defenders have high pass rushing numbers. Several players on the Tennessee defense have two or fewer sacks.
Passing against the Volunteers’ defense will likely be more difficult a task than rushing. Tennessee’s pass defense ranks No. 26 in the nation, allowing 194.5 yards per game (Missouri ranks No. 6). The Vols’ defense is not nearly as strong, surrendering 154.1 yards per game, which falls in the No. 62 slot for the nation’s run defenses.
The Volunteers defense as a whole sits in the top half of the league in scoring defense, allowing 23 points per game. That ranks 38th in the country.
Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli leads the Volunteers with 62 total tackles, which sneaks him just inside the top 20 of SEC defenders.
On the offensive side of the ball, Tennessee doesn’t have any playmakers who are at the top of the SEC, but it has some athletes who could provide problems for the Tigers.
Two Tennessee receivers who rank in the top 13 of SEC receivers in receiving yards. Redshirt senior Jauan Jennings is seventh and senior Marquez Callaway is 13th, and the receiving duo has combined for 12 touchdowns this season. Callaway has proven his big playmaking ability, leading the SEC with 22.14 yards per catch.
As to who will throw them the ball, the Tigers may have to defend more than one guy at quarterback.
In their most recent win against Kentucky, the Volunteers used both redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano and freshman Brian Maurer under center. They each completed seven passes, but Maurer had twice as many attempts. Guarantano, however, proved to be the most effective, tossing two touchdowns while Maurer had none. Guarantano has played the best of late, but he has not started since September.
Redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout has also played at times this season at quarterback.
Odom said Tuesday he assumes the Tigers will see all three. He doesn’t know who to expect as the starter.
Stopping the pass will need to be the top priority of Missouri’s defense. The Tennessee rushing attack is one of the worst in the country.
The Volunteers average 133 yards per game, which ranks 103rd in the nation. Their leading rusher, junior running back Ty Chandler, holds the No. 13 spot on the list of SEC runners with only 597 yards on the ground. He only has three rushing touchdowns on the year, also a team-high.
This game is winnable for the Tigers, but they aren’t guaranteed to win. Tennessee could just as easily walk away from Faurot Field with a victory.
Supervising editor is Eli Lederman.