KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee’s first trip to Missouri is a tougher game than anyone anticipated in August.
The Vols (4-4, 1-3) play No. 10 Missouri (7-1, 3-1) on Saturday at Faurot Field in Columbia (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.)
For the third week in a row, I turned to an old friend from my time on the Auburn beat, which should really be known as the Cradle of Beat Writers for its alumni network around the SEC.
1. Maty Mauk has received a lot of praise for the way he’s handled the offense in the wake of James Franklin’s injury, but his completion percentage hasn’t been pretty. What’s the real story?
Mauk is a kind of high-risk, high-reward proposition at quarterback. He’s fast and knows how to make plays with his feet, but that means he also escapes the pocket too early every now and then. He’s got a very strong arm and a lot of belief in it, but that also means he opts for the home-run try when sometimes he should check down to something safer and easier to complete. Mauk’s main problem on his incomplete passes so far has been a combination of trying to fit passes into places they shouldn’t go, as well as lacking the touch needed on some of the throws he should make. He tends to throw the ball as hard as he can, no matter the depth of the route. He also tends to lock onto his first or second read, no matter how many defenders are standing around.
That being said, you can see the potential in him. His footwork is sound in the pocket and he makes strong throws, even when he knows he’s going to take a hit. The more he learns how to settle and the more patient he becomes in his route progressions, the better he’ll get.
2. Could Mizzou have been this good in 2012 if the Tigers were healthy? What else has clicked for them?
I feel like the 2013 Tigers have started so well in part because of what the 2012 Tigers went through, so I’m not sure this same group — if healthy last year — would be getting the same results. James Franklin had to go through a year of adversity — and the criticism that followed — after his breeze of a sophomore campaign to put in the offseason of work that he did and be better suited to deal with setbacks this year. The offensive line had to go through a year of mixing and matching before finding the chemistry that’s allowing it to be one of the more solid groups in the SEC this season.
The wide receiving corps had to learn to make themselves available with an inefficient delivery system last year and have carried the skills over to the Tigers’ more polished pass game this season. The team as a whole has a kind of toughness and togetherness that bred during its first losing season since 2004 last year. It’s the kind of intangible thing that passes better for coachspeak than analysis, but I think there’s something to it on this year’s team.
3. What should fans and players expect of the atmosphere in Faurot Field this week? Will fans be deflated after last week’s loss?
Missouri fans should fill up Memorial Stadium, even with last week’s disappointment lingering. At 67,124 seats, Missouri’s home is one of the smaller ones in the SEC, but it can still get loud when things are going well for the Tigers. Just ask Florida about the mass “Gator chomp” that ensued in the stadium after Missouri’s last score put the game out of reach a couple of weeks ago. It’s kind of a late-arriving crew, but that’s mostly due to the fact that Missouri fans love their tailgates. So it’ll be a lively scene around the stadium for hours beforehand that will start translating to the seats as kickoff draws near.
Even coming off the South Carolina loss, Missouri fans seems enthused enough by the team’s start to the season and the fact that the Tigers are still very much in the SEC East race. People will come, Evan. People will most definitely come.
4. What Mizzou position group has given other teams the most matchup problems this year?
It has to be the defensive line. Michael Sam has been the revelation. He’s tops in the nation with 16 tackles for loss and tied for the national lead with 10 sacks. He’s figured out how to use his reaction time and burst on the line to make it so that it’s difficult for any lineman to get a hand on him until he’s already by. But what makes Missouri’s line so dangerous is the sheer number of pass rushers it can throw at a team.
Kony Ealy‘s the strongest of the group, and he also uses his 6-foot-5 frame to get hands up in passing lanes. He’s tied for the team lead with six passes defended this year. Then you’ve got Shane Ray — who has a sack in each of the past three games — and Markus Golden — who has fit seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception into limited snaps this season. Missouri lost first-round talent in Sheldon Richardson, and somehow its line has managed to play better without him.
5. What’s your prediction for the game and why?
Missouri, 38-28. The Tigers’ rush offense has proven an ability to carve out yards against basically everyone this year, and Tennessee’s rush defense looks especially vulnerable. Missouri can’t have much of an idea of Joshua Dobbs‘ tools with the limited film it has on him, but the Tigers’ rush has been able to harass everybody it’s come across in SEC play, and a true freshman quarterback making his first career start could struggle with that as well.
If Missouri figures out how to defend the screen, plays its usual soft zones in the secondary and makes Tennessee beat it 6 or 7 yards at a time, the offense should be able to outscore the Vols.