Vols Search for SEC Win Against Tigers
By Matt Smith
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The Volunteers are still searching for their first SEC win of the 2012 campaign.
Missouri at Tennessee
Saturday, 12:21 ET/11:21 CT
TV: SEC Network (Dave Neal and Andre Ware)
Despite their states sharing about a 50-mile border, Missouri and Tennessee have never met on the football field. That will change on Saturday afternoon when the Tigers (4-5, 1-5) travel east to Knoxville to take on the Volunteers (4-5, 0-5) in Neyland Stadium. Missouri put a major scare into No. 7 Florida last week before falling in Gainesville, 14-7. Tennessee played its final non-conference game of the season last Saturday, a 55-48 shootout win over Troy. Both teams desperately need a victory this week to increase the likelihood of a bowl appearance. Let’s look at five questions for the inaugural meeting between the Tigers and Vols.
1. Can a narrow win over Troy be a momentum builder for the Vols?
A 55-48 win over a Sun Belt team coming off a loss to Florida Atlantic doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a fledgling team or its fanbase. It’s beyond obvious that Derek Dooley has to impress in his final three games. 3-0 is the bare minimum, with style points a must. Yes, Tennessee’s defense is a lost cause for this year after allowing 721 yards to the Trojans. However, the Vols finally showed some resolve in scoring two late touchdowns to win last week after failing to seize opportunities to win late against Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Perhaps they just needed to experience a close win, regardless of opponent. You know, like last year, when they defeated Vanderbilt in overtime for their first SEC win . . . and then lost to Kentucky and its third-string quarterback the following week. OK, forget it.
2. Where is James Franklin mentally and physically?
It’s been a season to forget for the Tigers junior quarterback. He’s missed all or parts of four games, and is just 2-3 in his five starts, including last week’s loss to Florida in which Franklin threw four interceptions, tripling his season total in three hours. Injuries to his shoulder and knee are still affecting his play, but the bigger issue might be the mental frustration that SEC defenses have caused. Head coach Gary Pinkel has already said changes are coming the team’s offensive philosophy after the season. How is Franklin supposed to have confidence then in a system that the coach has publicly stated he has to tweak in order to succeed in the SEC? Last week was a disaster, but Tennessee’s defense isn’t Florida’s defense.
3. Is Missouri’s defense underrated?
In their past five games, the Tigers have allowed 20 points just once, to Alabama, and have moved up to No. 22 nationally in total defense. Sheldon Richardson is playing as well as any defensive tackle in the league right now, helping hold a strong Florida running game to fewer yards than it managed against LSU in a similar, low-scoring game. They’ll now get their biggest test to date against Tyler Bray and Tennessee’s red-hot passing attack. Cornerback E.J. Gaines has lived up to his preseason billing, but his running mate Kip Edwards, who has been a pleasant surprise, must be at his best against Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, as well as a less talented but just as dangerous Zach Rogers. Tennessee hasn’t had trouble scoring against anyone except Alabama, so something will have to give on Saturday afternoon.
4. Can the Tigers just bomb away on Tennessee like Troy did?
That has to be the game plan. Troy is no pushover, but Missouri has far more weapons than the Trojans. Heralded true freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham had a breakout performance last week in Gainesville, catching six passes for 73 yards in a losing effort. The Tigers deep receiving corps will test a porous Tennessee secondary with Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington stretching the field and Marcus Lucas and the always reliable T.J. Moe in the short passing game. The problem may be protecting Franklin, as the Tigers injury report got even longer this week with the loss of right tackle Justin Britt for the season. If Sal Sunseri’s defense is ever going to look anything like it did when he was linebackers coach at Alabama, this would be the week.
5. How will Tennessee divide its rushing attempts?
The Vols were cautious with Rajion Neal last week after the junior missed games against Alabama and South Carolina with an ankle injury. Neal received only seven carries, netting 32 yards. Sophomore Marlin Lane again got the bulk of the work, toting it 19 times for 132 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:25 remaining. Neal has had a good week of practice and should be much closer to 100% by kickoff on Saturday than he was a week ago. Expect Lane to still be the primary back but the final number should so closer to a 50-50 split, with Devrin Young getting his usual handful of carries. Even with Missouri boasting a good pair of defensive tackles in Richardson and Matt Hoch, the Vols should be able to make hay on the ground behind a solid offensive line.
Bonus: Who wins?
Simply looking at scores against common opponents would tell you Tennessee should win this game by 10-14 points. The Vols took Georgia and South Carolina to the wire, while Missouri lost by a combined 45 points to the Bulldogs and Gamecocks. However, Missouri will earn its first ever road win in SEC play on Saturday because its defense will make a few more plays than Tennessee’s in a fun early afternoon shootout to start what should be a fun day of SEC football. Franklin will finally get into a rhythm and have his best game of the season as the Tigers get back to .500, pulling a mild upset and providing the final nail in Dooley’s nearly-shut coffin. Missouri 34, Tennessee 30.