TENNESSEE (4-4, 1-3 SEC) AT NO. 10 MISSOURI (7-1, 3-1)
7 p.m. * Memorial Stadium/Faurot Field, Columbia, Mo. * ESPN/106.5 FM
Tennessee believes it has the best tandem of offensive tackles in the SEC.
Missouri knows it has SEC sacks leader Michael Sam and a group of disruptive defensive ends.
The Vols’ offensive line against the Tigers’ defensive line is strength against strength, and the edge matchup is the most intriguing. Missouri, led by Sam's 10, leads the SEC with 25 sacks, while Tennessee’s allowed eight sacks all season.
Tennessee tackles Ja’Wuan James and Antonio “Tiny” Richardson have a big job in slowing down Missouri’s defensive end quartet of Sam, Kony Ealy, Shane Ray and Markus Golden one on one, and they’ll need to keep him check for the Vols to win.
“It’s a pretty good group of guys,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “The neat thing about them is they’re all playing at a high level. They’re all very competitive. It’s all about sacks [and] tackles for loss if you’re on the defensive line.
“I think Michael kind of raised the bar. What that does, if you’re a competitor, is ignites everybody. It’s been very positive.”
One to watch
Welcome to the big stage, Josh Dobbs.
Tennessee’s freshman quarterback will make his first start after debuting in the second half of last week’s loss at Alabama. Starting an SEC road game is vastly different from entering in the second half of a 35-0 game.
How different will Tennessee’s offense look with Dobbs? He’s more of a running threat than Justin Worley, but the Vols can’t afford to run the risk of another injury at quarterback given backup Riley Ferguson also is hobbled. Tennessee also needs the players around Dobbs to step up and help the first-time starter.
“He’s come a long way since his arrival on campus and since our first practice,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “There’s stuff that we have identified in the course of the game that he needs to improve upon and will continue to work, but overall he handled the situation well. I’m looking forward to how he’ll handle this game as a starter.
“He’s a very confident player and a very confident person.”
In the end
Missouri is coming off a gut-wrenching double-overtime loss to South Carolina on a missed chip-shot field goal, though the Tigers still control their destiny in the SEC East race. The Tigers cannot afford to slip up against Tennessee with a trip to Ole Miss and a visit from Texas A&M left. How does Missouri again handle the weight of its position?
The Vols built some October momentum before running into Alabama a week ago. The Vols roundly said after the game the blowout didn’t dent any of the confidence they’d built after the Georgia and South Carolina games.
Obviously Dobbs is the wildcard in the game, and his play could go a long way toward Tennessee’s chances of pulling off the upset and throwing another wrench in the SEC East race.
Prediction: Missouri 35, Tennessee 25
ST. LOUIS — The road has been unkind to Tennessee this season.
While two of the three trips the Volunteers have taken were against the top two teams in the country, the travel troubles go back further than 2013.
A lot further, in fact.
Tennessee's last SEC road win was against Vanderbilt in 2010, and the Vols last beat a ranked team in a true road game in 2006 at Georgia. They carry a 18-game road losing streak against ranked teams into tonight's game at No. 10 Missouri.
"It's just everything has to be that much more critical, because you've got to create your own energy," Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel Hood said this week. "You've got to do everything yourself. You don't have 100,000 fans pulling you up when something doesn't go your way.
"It takes maturity, and we obviously hadn't done well in the three road games that we've had this year in terms of our missed assignments, loafs and things like that. I think a lot of that, too, is the guys maturing. We've just got to show up, play hard, play smart, don't try to make the Superman play. Just play your gap, take care of your responsibility and we'll be all right."
In its three games away from Neyland Stadium this season, Tennessee has been outscored 135-41. Top-ranked Alabama routed the Vols 45-10, and Oregon won by 45. Florida won by two touchdowns with a backup quarterback in a game in which Tennessee turned the ball over six times.
As in that game in Gainesville, the Vols are turning to a freshman quarterback, this time Josh Dobbs, though he made his debut last week at Alabama and was named the starter early this week.
The Vols took a step by snapping a 19-game losing streak to ranked teams when they beat South Carolina two weeks ago, and first-year coach Butch Jones since has pointed to winning on the road as the next step the program must take.
"Championship football teams have the ability to block out all the external factors and go on the road and win games," he said. "Each team is different. Each team has different personalities.
"I think in order to be a good road team, you have to get the first one."
That's what Tennessee will be looking for tonight in Columbia against a Tigers team still in control of its destiny in the race to represent the East Division in the SEC championship game even after last week's loss to South Carolina.
In three seasons at Cincinnati, Jones was 7-8 on the road, though that doesn't include a win against Virginia Tech in a game played in Washington, D.C. The Bearcats were 1-4 on the road in 2010 and lost every game by at least 11 points and two by 21 or more points. In the next two seasons, Cincinnati was 6-4 on the road.
"I think it's just a maturity level," Jones said. "I think it's a businesslike approach. I think it starts in your week of preparation of understanding what you're up against. I think our road games have been against some very high-caliber, high-quality -- high-quality -- opponents as well.
"I think this experience," he added, "is going to prove to be extremely beneficial as we continue to grow and develop our football program."
Jones thought his team had an unusually high level of anxiety before last week's game at Alabama, and he's talked about how important it is for the road team to create its own energy away from home.
"I feel like it's simple," cornerback Justin Coleman said. "But something that we've got to do is practice it. We've got to practice it over and over and try to create that energy by basically focusing and playing with each other."
Hood provided more tangible examples of how the Vols can supply their own momentum in other teams' stadiums.
"I think the way you do it is we have to do it as a team, together," he said. "When we put our kickoff or kickoff return team in on that first play of the game, if it's kickoff, they've got to come out and lay a big hit on somebody. The kickoff return gets a big return. The offense comes out, get a big block or get a big run, and just keep consistently doing things like that.
"Keep pressing and keep pressing. If something goes against you, don't let up and put on more steam and just keep going. You've got to literally keep pushing. Their fans will get into it and they'll get loud, but you've just got to sustain that and keep making those plays."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...