KNOXVILLE — Three games remain for Tennessee.
The 2017 season has not gone as expected. Now Tennessee must win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible. Go 1-2 (or worse) against Missouri, LSU and Vanderbilt, and the Vols will miss out on a bowl for the first time since Butch Jones’ first season in 2013.
Regardless of the many lows this season, making a bowl game is a goal in closing out the season to springboard into the offseason.
Having extra practice time for bowl preparation only helps returning players gain extra reps, and it allows seniors one last time to wear the Power T.
Senior offensive lineman Jashon Robertson understands what’s at stake.
“For somebody like me, you would like to think the next level is there for you, but not everything is guaranteed,” Robertson said heading into the Missouri game. “An extra opportunity to play another game of football with a T on my chest would be very special.
“That’s just extending the life expectancy of our team for another month or however, long it would be. It would be a lot of time to be around the guys and just enjoy that type experience because when you leave it’s going to be hard to find something to even come close to that kind of experience.”
Facing Missouri’s offense
The quest for two more victories begins with a road test at Missouri against an offense that is averaging 36.6 points per game (22nd nationally) and is on a three-game winning streak. Missouri also is 4-5.
The Voice of the Tigers Mike Kelly went in detail on Missouri’s recent success with Saturday Down South ahead of the matchup with Tennessee.
Kelly said that the Tigers are simply just “playing better in all facets” during the current three-game winning streak.
“It has been a steady improvement from what they did against Idaho, they did better against UConn and then they did better against Florida,” he said.
Kelly points to quarterback Drew Lock “being more and more efficient in the passing game” with his “completion percentage now over 60, which is something he has been striving for.”
The Tigers hold the 15th overall offense nationally and are known for their passing attack under Lock and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel. The Missouri passing attack ranks 14th in the nation averaging 314.9 yards per game.
Lock has completed 176-of-190 passes for 2,795 yards and 31 touchdowns — most in the nation. The 6-4, 225-pound junior signal-caller has thrown nine interceptions.
Lock’s primary wide receiver targets this season have been J’Mon Moore (44 receptions, 740 yards and 8 TDs), Emanuel Hall (26 receptions, 604 yards and 4 TDs) and Johnathon Johnson (34 receptions, 563 yards and 4 TDs).
Freshman tight end Albert Okwuegbunam has also became a reliable target with 15 receptions for 193 yards and scoring seven touchdowns.
Kelly said that “the emergence of Hall at wide receiver and his ability to stretch the field in the vertical passing game has been huge.
“Freshman tight end Okwuegbunam has come into his own and leading all tight ends in the country with seven touchdown receptions.”
Missouri is also efficient on the ground, averaging 169.2 yards per game (59th nationally). Ish Witter (504 yards, 3 TDs) leads that unit.
One reason Lock has enjoyed so much success is that his allowed has allowed him enough time. Missouri’s scheme helps, too. The Tigers spread the field and Lock frequently knows where the ball is going before he receives the snap.
“The offensive line has been solid and giving up just eight sacks and 25 tackles for loss, allowing them to play with much more confidence and executing particularly on the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said.
As the season has played on the Missouri offense has taken its time and slowed down from a fast pace.
“They have slowed the pace lately,” Kelly said. “They were going quick up-tempo earlier in the year, and against Florida 18 of the first 23 plays were running plays. They are finding the ability to establish the run the game and are showing a lot of patience and are executing quite well.”
After a 72-43 win over Missouri State to open the season, Missouri lost five straight. Since the 1-5 start, the Tigers have reeled off three consecutive wins, giving life to a potential bowl bid. Like the Vols, the Tigers must win two of three against Tennessee, at Vanderbilt and at Arkansas.
Kelly said the rebound can be traced, in part, to the Tigers’ last loss. “Playing Georgia and gaining confidence in that game going toe-to-toe in the first two quarters and putting 28 points up on that really good defensive unit has given them confidence going forward in the second half of the season,” he said.
Those 28 points are the most any team has scored on Georgia — and just six fewer than the Bulldogs have allowed in their other five SEC games combined.
With the gained confidence and the offense getting more accustomed to their personnel during the second half of the season, Kelly says that the mindset is not looking back on the previous three wins, but looking ahead.
“The mindset is that you have won three games in a row, but that means nothing unless you are a mature competitor and prepare the right way throughout the course of the work week,” he said.