7:30 p.m. * Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn. * ESPN/106.5 FM
It's a step up in class for Tennessee's red-hot offense against Missouri. The Tigers, 22nd in the country in total defense, boast another pair of dangerous defensive ends in Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who have ensured there was no drop-off from Michael Sam and Kony Ealy (21 combined sacks in 2013).
Ray leads the SEC in sacks (13) and shares the league lead in tackles for loss (18) with Tennessee freshman Derek Barnett. Golden has 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in nine games. Missouri's veteran defense is strong at every level, but it starts with those two.
The Vols will have to find ways to help tackles Jacob Gilliam and Kyler Kerbyson, and quarterback Josh Dobbs will have to be able to escape pressure, much like he did at least five times against Kentucky last week. "Most of the stuff I do in the pocket I've practiced," he said, "but when it comes down to it, it's all about instincts, all about feeling the rush and making the play when it's there."
ONE TO WATCH
Take your pick of any three Tennessee players that, due to three different sets of circumstances, will step into larger roles tonight. Defensively communication could be an issue with linebacker A.J. Johnson, Tennessee's top tackler and best player, suspended amid off-field trouble and valuable safety Brian Randolph sitting out the first half for his targeting penalty last week.
To replace its top two tacklers and defensive anchors, the Vols will turn to German-born freshman and first-time starter Jakob Johnson at middle linebacker and freshman safety Todd Kelly, who started twice earlier in the year. Both players have bright futures, but Johnson and Kelly will need to step up and play well against a Missouri offense coming off its best game of the season.
Offensively, with Mack Crowder out with a leg injury, sophomore Dylan Wiesman will make his first start at center, and he'll need to be sharp with his snaps, something that's not always been the case.
IN THE END
It's a high-stakes games for both sides. With a win, Missouri would need only a home win against Arkansas to return to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Tennessee is a win away from clinching the program's first bowl berth since 2010 and showing tangible progress in Butch Jones's second season as coach.
The Tigers own the nation's third-longest road winning streak at nine games and won't be fazed by what should be an electric atmosphere. The obvious question is how the Vols handle the absence of A.J. Johnson, their heart-and-soul and their best player.
Such scenarios typically either galvanize teams or send them into a shell. With how Dobbs and Tennessee's offense are playing right now, it may not matter.
PREDICTION: TENNESSEE 27, MISSOURI 20
KNOXVILLE - Jordan Williams first came to the realization of what was ahead as he trotted to the locker room at Neyland Stadium one week ago.
Tennessee's defensive tackle knew he'd only walk those steps one more time.
Williams will get a different walk when the Volunteers honor him and the rest of their seniors before hosting 19th-ranked and SEC East Division-leading Missouri in the season's home finale.
"When the (Kentucky) game ended, I was thinking a week from now it'd be my last time running off this field," Williams said earlier this week. "It's another opportunity to play football, and I don't care where I'm at. I really appreciate the fans these last four years, and I really appreciate Tennessee football. It's going to be a fun game.
"They're in our way to get to a bowl game, and we're in their way to get the SEC championship, so it's going to be a good game."
The Vols have 13 scholarship seniors on their roster, but it will be the one that's missing that will be hard to ignore.
Linebacker A.J. Johnson, Tennessee's best defender, the program's second-leading all-time tackler and one of the team's most popular players, will miss what would have been his final home game after he and cornerback Michael Williams were suspended Monday amid a police investigation into an alleged rape of a 19-year-old woman.
His absence will be palpable as each of the seniors is introduced and hugs head coach Butch Jones, but it should not take away from the moment for Jordan Williams and the others.
"It's definitely going to emotional for me, my last time playing at home, last time playing with my brothers at home," said the Gainesville, Fla., native. "The thing is I've just got to focus and refocus. I've got to attack it just like every other game, because it's football and you can't let the distractions get to you."
Jordan Williams came to Tennessee in 2011 as a 240-pound outside linebacker, played defensive end for one season, outside linebacker for another and put on some 30 pounds over this offseason because the Vols needed him to play defensive tackle.
"As a senior you either play your best football, or your worst football," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "There's never any in between, and that's the life of a senior. Jordan Williams has definitely played his best football.
"We've asked so much of him from adding the additional weight, from changing his position from the defensive end to the defensive tackle spot, and he's handled it exceptionally. He's really grown into a team leader, and our players respect him."
Quarterback Justin Worley, who wrote an excellent letter of reflection and gratitude to Tennessee fans on the program's official website Thursday, figures to get a loud ovation, as does offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam, a local product who toiled as a walk-on for four years before earning a scholarship and returned from a torn ACL to play this season.
Even though he's been out since October with injury, too, it should be emotional, too, for Devrin Young, the Knoxville native who achieved his dream of playing for the Vols.
Cornerback Justin Coleman developed into a dependable defender, but punter Matt Darr, tailback Marlin Lane and tight end Brendan Downs are the only other contributors in a senior class that includes receiver Jacob Carter, cornerback Riyahd Jones, offensive lineman Marques Pair and tight end Woody Quinn.
Tennessee's season looked hopeless coming off a 34-3 loss at Ole Miss in mid-October, but the Vols can wrap up the program's first bowl berth since 2010 with a win tonight, and Jones credited some key seniors for helping keep a team full of freshmen and sophomores from on track toward its primary goal through some struggles.
"We always talked about staying the course, and there's no secret about it, if you look at our schedule, it was a challenge right from the get-go," he said. "I believe most of our opponents will have an opportunity to participate in a bowl game this year. We knew that going forward, and we knew with a young football team we would have to stay the course.
"The goal hasn't changed. Our goal is to be the best football team that we can possibly be. We have good competitive character in our program. Our seniors, our veteran players have really held this football team together."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.