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If you were looking for a few positive signs from the Tennessee football program, which played Florida this past weekend, you didn’t have to look far. The Vols walked into the Swamp as 20 point underdogs, looking to put together a complete game on both sides of the ball. We’ve come to realize that this team still lacks some key ingredients, as you noticed in the 2nd half, but there are reasons to hope as well.
This team is good at some spots and mediocre at others, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to Tennessee fans. Simply put, they lack the depth that is needed to pull off an upset like the one in Gainesville, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put a scare into their opponents. As you saw in the first half, the Vols are more than capable of hanging around, thanks to a few deep balls and an established run game. We’ve seen this team look great out of the backfield but then struggle to hit open receivers downfield, something the coaching staff has harped on.
But for this team, depth is starting to rear its ugly head. The Vols were already banged up a bit going into the game, and now they are dealing with a few more injuries, as Josh Heupel pointed out on Monday.
“I said at the beginning of the year, we’re probably as thin as anybody in the country based off of pure numbers, guys on scholarship. Depth for us certainly is something we’re thinking about and trying to continue to develop. Young guys have got to continue to grow and be ready to play when given the opportunity, and play at a really high level. The constant development of your roster is something that you’re always thinking about, always working on. Obviously, recruiting in this cycle will be big for us too.”
On the other hand though, this team is battling with the players they’ve got, which should be a welcome sign to fans. This was never going to be an 8-win team, but they are showing signs of life that even players have begun to notice. Tennessee DE Tyler Baron was quick to point out what separates this team from the team last year, especially when it comes to effort.
“I definitely think we’re playing with a lot more effort than we did last year. Another thing, we’re not dwelling on mistakes as much, even though we did make a ton of them. I felt like we were able to snap it clear and move on to the next play well. Yeah, effort is the biggest thing for me, playing a lot harder for each other.”
The running game should be what propels Tennessee to a victory against Missouri on Saturday. As the Vols get healthier, the running backs will continue to flourish. The emergence of Tiyon Evans has been key for this team, as has Jabari Small. Combined, they’ve rushed for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns over three games. Meanwhile, controlling the run game has been Missouri’s kryptonite this year. Boston College alone rushed for 275 yards in their win over the Tigers this past weekend. The Missouri defensive line is struggling right now, which gives Tennessee the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the ground.
As for the quarterback situation at Tennessee, it will be another week of questionable players. Starting QB Hendon Hooker took a hard hit in the Florida game and wasn’t able to return, which prompted Josh Heupel to bring in Joe Milton III, who has also been battling an injury as well. So now the question is who will start against Missouri. Heupel mentioned that Hooker was not in concussion protocol, but also added that he is “not sure if he’ll be available or not, so we’ll see how that transpires here during the course of the week and go from there.”
If the Vols are going to beat Missouri, they’ll have to pressure Connor Bazelak since the Vols’ secondary has a tendency to get beat over the middle. That means guys like Tyler Baron, Matthew Butler, Byron Young and others will have to step up and bring the pressure, while also stopping Tigers running back Tyler Badie.
This Vols team has shown they can play with their competition, but now they must do it for four quarters and cut out the mistakes. I expect a hungry team to be headed for Missouri, looking to return to Knoxville with their first SEC win.
According to FanDuel.com, Missouri is -3.5 favorite.