Missouri (4-5, 1-5 SEC) at Tennessee (4-5, 0-5)
12:21 p.m. * Neyland Stadium in Knoxville * WDSI/106.5 FM
In a bit of a peculiar twist, Missouri's defense is sixth in the SEC and 22nd nationally. A normally prolific offense has struggled with injuries and poor play, but the SEC newcomers have played well defensively. Sheldon Richardson, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound defensive tackle, is the Tigers' leading tackler and anchor.
"Their front is where it starts," said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. "They have a special game-wrecker up front, which is what most good defenses have. They play incredibly sound and fly to the ball.
"They're similar in a lot of ways to how South Carolina plays up front: aggressive, tenacious, penetrating. They've got a lot of good players. They're doing a good job."
The Vols' line neutralized the Gamecocks' front for nearly all of that game and paved the way for 35 points and nearly 500 yards of offense, and Missouri has allowed 40-plus points to the best offenses its faced (Georgia and Alabama).
One to watch
In the words of his coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri quarterback James Franklin has "been through hell" his season after an outstanding 2011 season in which he ran for 1,097 yards and 17 touchdowns and threw for 2,971 yards and 22 scores. His season's been derailed by various knee and shoulder injuries, and he's had his toughness criticized publicly. After missing two games and not starting another, Franklin returned to the starting spot against Florida last week and threw for 236 yards with four interceptions.
"I've never had a quarterback go through anything like this physically, ever," Pinkel said. "It's been difficult for him, but he's a competitor and he had the best practice of the year [Tuesday]."
The last four quarterbacks to play Tennessee's SEC-worst defense have set career highs in yards, and the Vols are obviously wary of Franklin's talent even if he's nowhere close to 100 percent.
"The kid's a dang good football player," Vols defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. "If you go with this kid's history and what he's done, he's a very, very good football player."
In the end
Will Tennessee's defensive changes yield results? Dooley spent all his practice time this week with the defense, and Sunseri suggested he'd move to the coaching booth and no longer held play-calling responsibilities. Safeties coach Josh Conklin, a former defensive coordinator at The Citadel, likely would be calling plays if it's not Sunseri, but it's unclear what exactly the Vols' changes entail.
"We're going to do some things differently schematically to help take some of the pressure off some of our players to give them a better chance," Dooley said. "There's a lot more input from everybody on what we need to do and where the stress points are and making a decision on what we're not going to do. We'll do some different things on game day, how we implement and call it."
Will the changes have any impact, or will Tennessee's offense once again have to carry the day?
Tennessee 45, Missouri 42
KNOXVILLE — The Southeastern Conference logo remains painted in orange and white on the two 25-yard lines at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.
It might be a little misleading this afternoon.
The way the Volunteers score and allow points more resembles a team from the Big 12 Conference, the former home of Missouri, which makes its first visit to Knoxville this afternoon.
Playing in shootouts is nothing new for Tennessee's offense, but players are mixed in their enjoyment of them.
"We try to not pay too much attention to the scoreboard," Vols tailback Marlin Lane said. "We just go out there and try to go play by play and make some drives. We feel that nobody is going to stop us from scoring but ourselves."
In 2012, Tennessee has played in games that ended 55-48, 38-35, 41-31 and 51-44. Last season, their last in the Big 12, the Tigers played in games with such scores as 37-30, 38-28, 38-31 and 42-39. Missouri is just 109th nationally in total offense, but the Vols' SEC-worst defense surrendered 38 points to South Carolina (86th nationally) and 37 to Florida (102nd).
After the Vols' offense was outgained despite ringing up a program-record 718 yards and winning against Troy last Saturday, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray bluntly said no when asked if he enjoyed playing in such games. He noted the pressure on the players and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
The amiable Chaney downplayed that notion, probably because of the fun he admits he's having coaching an offense that's putting up points and numbers like Tennessee's.
"It's funner than the other ones," he said with a smile. "You have enjoyment as a coach when your players are executing and having the production they need. When they're not, you don't, so I enjoyed late Saturday night because we won the ballgame.
"This week, on Sunday, you go right back to work trying to beat the Missouri Tigers. You don't get to feel good very long. You move right on to the next ballgame, so enjoyment is something maybe during retirement."
As productive as the Vols were against Troy, they went through a stretch in the middle of the game in which they scored six points and a 28-10 lead evaporated. After scoring four touchdowns on its first four drives, Tennessee punted once, missed a field goal, settled for two short field goals and fumbled inside the Troy 5. During its offensive funk, Tennessee's defense was allowing 41 points and 500 yards through three quarters.
"Your back is against the wall, so it is a little more difficult," tight end Mychal Rivera said. "When you make mistakes, they're much bigger mistakes. But I enjoy it.
"I enjoy going out there and just try to put as many points on the board. We're really confident. As many weapons we have, we can put a lot of points on the board."
Tennessee has averaged 36.8 points per game this season, the highest since the 1996 Vols averaged 36.4. The program went nine consecutive seasons (1993-2001) averaging more than 30 but last surpassed that mark in 2007. There have been only two seasons in the last 30 years (1982 and 2007) when Tennessee has allowed more than 400 yards per game, and this year's edition is surrendering a whopping 483 yards per outing.
The Vols are 18th nationally in total offense and 115th in total defense, and there's not been a disparity like that since 2008, when the country's third-best defense couldn't overcome the nation's fifth-worst offense.
"I personally don't like it, but you've got to do what you've got to do as an offense, you know what I mean?" said left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson. "I think that we have great balance. We have great receivers, but I think I think we've established ourselves as a running team.
"Whatever we have to do, whatever we've got to do to win the game, whether it's passing the ball or running the ball, we can do that."
There have been times this season, though, when the Vols offensively have missed chances and left yards and potentially game-winning points on the field.
"Every ballgame, whether you win or lose, there's plays that you look back and wish you could have done them again," Chaney said. "There's always four or five calls in every game that I wish I could have taken back. That doesn't change.
"It seldom ever changes. Over the period of time that I've called plays, there's good and there's bad and there's ugly with every ballgame. That's why the end result is what really matters."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...