Tigers’ matchup with Tennessee will be a barometer of season’s direction
It’s hard to tell just where Missouri football is after its 38-19 Week 1 loss to No. 2 Alabama.
Between the notable performance of some on offense (Shawn Robinson’s completion percentage, Jalen Knox’s efforts in the slot, Larry Rountree III’s rushing performance) and a second half that saw the Tigers defense adjust to the Crimson Tide, it’s clear there were some little victories — even if there were “self-inflicted wounds,” as coach Eliah Drinkwitz said.
Those little victories are a part of what makes the Tigers’ Week 2 matchup with the No. 21 Tennessee Volunteers (1-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) so intriguing. Although Missouri’s team faced a monolith of an opponent to start the season, that’s not the case with Tennessee, which eked out a 31-27 win last week over a South Carolina team that went 4-8 last year and was debuting a new quarterback in Collin Hill.
The Tigers were also outclassed in all three phases last week and that’s not so much the case heading into Week 2. However, the Volunteers still very much have talent.
Most notable on offense is senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. He was tied for No. 5 in the league in passing touchdowns a season ago, and he finished Week 1 at No. 6 in the SEC in passing yards.
Also, senior running back Ty Chandler finished Week 1 at No. 3 in the league in rushing yards. Chandler was No. 16 in the conference last year in total rushing yards, but, at this rate, he’s on pace to beat last year’s total by at least 200 yards.
The Volunteers also have one of the most talented offensive lines in the SEC. It’s loaded with former five-star recruits and likely a future first-round NFL draft pick in left guard Trey Smith.
The defense returns eight starters from a year ago, including sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o. To’o To’o started 12 games as a true freshman and finished the year with 72 tackles. He’s just one player on a defense that held South Carolina to 89 yards rushing last week.
Drinkwitz also said earlier this week that Volunteers defensive coordinator Derek Ansley is “a really bright football coach and a defensive coordinator on the rise.”
However, Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt seemed to think during Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference that Missouri has just as much talent.
The Tigers played two quarterbacks in Robinson and Connor Bazelak, he noted, and “we have to be prepared for that.” There’s also several “very, very talented running backs,” namely Rountree and Tyler Badie, who are “just a really good balance” and “great receivers out of the backfield.” And, of course, there’s the two graduate transfer receivers: Damon Hazelton and Keke Chism.
Pruitt also noted a defense that carries over a lot from last year and creates “very tight windows; they pressure the quarterback and make it very tough on you to run the football.”
“It’ll be a tremendous challenge for us,” he said.
That challenge may largely come from Missouri’s quarterbacks Saturday, as the Volunteers struggled against Hill. The Colorado State transfer sits at No. 5 in the SEC in total passing yards after his performance.
Robinson’s performance against Alabama saw him end with just 185 yards passing, but if he can clean up a lot of sloppy plays from his performance, it’s likely he could settle in. And if he can’t, the Tigers can always turn to Bazelak, who led his offense to a walk-off touchdown against the Tide. After all, Drinkwitz told reporters Tuesday he won’t shy away from playing both quarterbacks this season.
“Both guys competed, both guys gave us exactly what we expected them to give us, and both guys will get reps moving forward,” he said.
Drinkwitz called this Tennessee matchup a “tough task” at the start of the week — and rightfully so. Any time a coach can take his program from 5-7 to 8-5 in just two seasons, it’s noteworthy. However, Pruitt and the Volunteers appear to be in a spot that Missouri fans may be familiar with, as just last year, Barry Odom’s Tigers were coming off an 8-5 season just before his program hit a midseason plateau that led to him losing his job.
As odd as it is, it makes the Tigers and the Volunteers feel that much more similar. And it feels like a chance for Drinkwitz and company to know just what they’ve got for the rest of this SEC-only 2020 season, more than Week 1 ever could.