Tennessee at Missouri
When: Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013; Time TBD
Where: Columbia, Mo.
Missouri at a glance:
Head coach: Gary Pinkel (90-61 in 12 years at Missouri)
All-time record: 632-530-52
2012 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Returning starters: 7 (offense) 6 (defense)
2012 overview: It was the first season of SEC competition for Missouri and it was somewhat of a rude awakening for a team that was 48-19 in its previous five seasons in the Big 12.
The Tigers weren’t completely overwhelmed, though. They played eventual SEC East champs Georgia even until the fourth quarter, they fought Florida to the end in a 14-7 loss at Gainesville and the Tigers did notch SEC wins over Kentucky and Tennessee. Their 51-48 victory over UT in four overtimes helped seal the fate of Derek Dooley, who was fired the following week.
But even though Missouri proved it could compete against some of the SEC, it will be looking to take another step in 2013. The improvements will need to come on both sides of the ball with the Tigers finishing 11th last year in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. Can Missouri replace its defensive stars?
The Tigers had two defensive players drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft this spring – defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson (New York Jets) and linebacker Zaviar Gooden (Tennessee Titans). Two of the most athletic players in the SEC for their respective positions, Gooden and Richardson, helped ease the transition to the SEC for Missouri. Linebacker Andrew Wilson and defensive lineman Michael Sam will be among the players who will be asked to step up.
2. Can quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey return to their old form?
Franklin was thought to be among the top SEC quarterbacks heading into 2012. Instead, injuries and inconsistent performance landed him on the bench at times and kept Mizzou’s offense grounded in many situations. He’ll look to return to 2011’s form when he threw for 2,865 yards and rushed for 981. If he can’t get the job done, Missouri has other options such as Corbin Berkstresser and Maty Mauk.
Josey, meanwhile, missed all of 2012 with a knee injury. He’ll hope to recapture some 2011 magic as well, a year in which he was named First-Team All-Big 12 and rushed for nearly 1,200 yards.
3. Will Pinkel be on the hot seat at this point?
It seems somewhat unlikely that the veteran head coach who led Missouri to seven consecutive bowl appearances before 2012 would be in trouble in 2013, but fans were hoping for a better start in the SEC last season. This matchup against Tennessee will be the fifth straight game for Missouri against an SEC East foe with Vandy, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina coming before it. If Missouri is 0-4 in that stretch leading up to the UT game, it could be a very important day for Pinkel’s job security.
How will it play out?
This is one of the key games on UT’s schedule that looks like it could go either way from a preseason evaluation standpoint. These teams proved to be virtually even last year and both lost some important contributors, while both also return some experienced veterans.
The Tigers will likely hold the edge in the secondary and at the offensive skill positions with UT looking like the stronger team on the offensive line and in the front seven on defense. Missouri return man Marcus Murphy could be an X-factor. He returned four kicks for scores in 2012 and was 10th nationally with a punt return average of just under 14 yards per attempt.
It’s too early to tell on this one, but a close game seems like a safe bet.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga