Columbia, MO (SportsNetwork.com) - A week after suffering their first loss of the season in heartbreaking fashion, the 10th-ranked Missouri Tigers get back to action on Saturday night as they entertain the Tennessee Volunteers in SEC action to close out a three-game homestand.
Tennessee has played one of the nation's toughest schedules, and the young squad have been able to navigate through it to the tune of a 4-4 record. All four of the Vols' losses have come against teams ranked at the time (Oregon, Florida, Georgia, Alabama), and they have an impressive victory against South Carolina under their belts. They most recently dropped a 45-10 decision to the top-ranked Crimson Tide last Saturday.
"The next step in the evolution of our football program and football team is to learn how to win on the road," Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. "When you play on the road, you are responsible for creating your own momentum and opportunities. Obviously, we did not do that in any way, shape or form in the first half (at Alabama). That is very disappointing."
After a 7-0 start that included outstanding wins over Georgia and Florida, Missouri was able to rise all the way to No. 5 in the AP poll, but it suffered its first setback of the season at home against South Carolina last week in double overtime, 27-24, after its kicker Andrew Baggett missed a 24-yard field goal attempt that would have forced a third extra session.
"Our guys are certainly frustrated and disappointed, and they should be," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. "They are competitors and we will have to bounce back from this."
Despite the misstep, the Tigers still control their own destiny in the SEC Eastern Division with a record of 3-1.
These two teams met for the very first time last season when the Tigers outlasted the Vols in a four-overtime thriller, 51-48.
Like most teams that play Alabama, Tennessee was stifled offensively last week with just 322 yards and 14 first downs, with most of that production coming late with the game already out of reach. The Vols offense ranks 10th in the SEC in both scoring (27.9 ppg) and yardage (362.3 ypg).
Justin Worley threw two picks and no touchdowns last week, and now sits with 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions on the season. He suffered a right thumb injury against Alabama and is listed as questionable for this tilt. If he is unable to go, expect Joshua Dobbs to get the nod after seeing the first action of his career last week (5-of-12, 75 yards).
The team is at its best when the rushing attack is clicking. Rajion Neal is the SEC's fourth-leading rusher with 763 yards while crossing into the end zone nine times. Marlin Lane is an effective change-of-pace back with 360 yards and four touchdowns.
Marquez North (25 receptions, 368 yards, TD) and Alton "Pig" Howard (25 receptions, 255 yards, three TDs) are both viable receiving options.
The Vols have failed to stand out on the defensive side of the ball as well, as they rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring defense (29.3 ppg) and total defense (420.3 ypg). The unit has proven to be an opportunistic bunch, however, with 18 takeaways.
A.J. Johnson quarterbacks the UT defense and leads the way with 65 tackles. Brian Randolph has picked off three passes, while Dontavis Sapp (FF, two FR), Cameron Sutton (two INTs, two FR) and Brent Brewer (two INTs) have also generated multiple turnovers. Marlon Walls is a strong presence along the defensive line with 6.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks.
In terms of scoring, Missouri's offense ranks behind only Texas A&M's in the SEC, putting up 41.8 ppg, and it has shown great balance between the run (224.5 ypg) and the pass (275.2 ypg).
Since taking over for the injured James Franklin a few weeks back, Maty Mauk has been up and down, completing 49.3 percent of his passes for 585 yards with three touchdowns (one rushing) and two picks. He hit on a few big plays against South Carolina, finishing with 249 yards, but ultimately disappointed by completing just 10-of-25 passes.
"I thought he did a lot of good things," Pinkel said. "He is a young guy. It is his second times starting a football game in his (college) life. I think he did some really, really good things and a lot of little things he needs to do to get better. Overall, he battled and we will improve and I think he will be a really good player."
Franklin (1,867 total yards, 17 TDs, three INTs), who went down on Oct. 12, was originally expected to miss up to six weeks with his shoulder injury, but he is progressing faster than expected and there's on outside chance that he can play this week.
"(Franklin) threw the ball and did some good things (at Sunday's practice)," Pinkel said. "Is he ready yet? We don't know at all, but when he feels ready is when he'll play. And he'll move to the starting position when that happens."
With or without Franklin, the Tigers have an outstanding rushing attack. Henry Josey has risen to the top of the pecking order with 573 yards and eight touchdowns, although Russell Hansbrough (449 yards, three TDs) and Marcus Murphy (410 yards, seven TDs) have also played very well when their name has been called.
The Tigers' never-ending supply of weapons extends to the receiving corps, with Marcus Lucas (39 catches, 447 yards, TD), L'Damien Washington (33 catches, 635 yards, eight TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (31 catches, 457 yards, four TDs) all ranking in the top-12 in the SEC.
Defensively, Missouri has held strong in supporting its top-notch offense, allowing just 22.8 ppg while holding opposing offenses to just 35 percent success on third down.
Michael Sam is in the midst of an All-American type campaign at defensive end, racking up 16.0 TFL, 10.0 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Kentrell Brothers and E.J. Gaines each have three interceptions for a team that ranks tied for seventh in the nation with 21 takeaways. Andrew Wilson has a team-high 58 tackles.