KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has an opportunity Saturday to show how far it has come in the last year.
One year after setting a school record for losses and failing to win a single Southeastern Conference game, the Volunteers (5-5, 2-4 SEC) are a win away from bowl eligibility. A victory Saturday over Missouri (6-4, 2-4) would guarantee that Tennessee avoids being stuck at home for the holidays again.
“It definitely hurt,” Tennessee defensive end Kyle Phillips said in regard to the Vols’ absence from a bowl game last year. “You think it’s fun to be home, but it’s not at all. It’s not at all.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate that Tennessee’s first chance at becoming bowl eligible comes against Missouri. Tennessee closed the book on the Butch Jones era last year by firing him as coach the day after a 50-17 loss at Missouri in which the Tigers scored the game’s final 33 points.
While most of the other SEC teams spent December preparing for bowls, Tennessee was switching athletic directors during a tumultuous coaching search that eventually resulted in the hire of former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Tennessee has shown progress under Pruitt by winning three straight games, including a 24-7 triumph last week over No. 20 Kentucky (No. 17 College Football Playoff ). The Vols already have exceeded their win total from last year, when they finished 4-8.
“I’m impressed with what Jeremy has done in a short period of time,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence, playing really well, playing their best ball.”
So is Missouri.
Missouri has won two of its last three games and posted a decisive 38-17 victory over No. 15 Florida (No. 13 CFP) in its last road contest. The Tigers head into Neyland Stadium as six-point favorites.
Pruitt notes that Missouri may be better than its record indicates. The Tigers lost 37-35 to South Carolina on a field goal in the rain with two seconds left and fell 15-14 to Kentucky when a Missouri pass interference penalty led to the Wildcats scoring the winning touchdown on an untimed play after the game clock had expired.
“These guys are 6-4, and really, with the rain game against South Carolina where they had a pretty good lead and if they don’t get two penalties against Kentucky, they are probably 8-2,” Pruitt said.
WELCOME BACK, DOOLEY
Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley was Tennessee’s head coach from 2010-12 and posted a 15-21 record.
This marks Dooley’s first season as a college coach since Tennessee fired him. He had been the Dallas Cowboys’ receivers coach for five years before joining Odom’s staff at Missouri.
LOCK SEEKING MILESTONE
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock has thrown for 11,342 career yards to rank third on the SEC’s all-time career list. He needs 187 yards to overtake former Georgia quarterback David Greene and move into second place.
The SEC record is owned by Aaron Murray, who threw for 13,166 yards for Georgia from 2010-13.
Tennessee outside linebacker Darrell Taylor is the reigning SEC defensive player of the week after recording four sacks against Kentucky.
Taylor could have a tougher time applying pressure this week. Missouri has attempted the second-most passes (356) in the SEC this year but has allowed the second-fewest sacks (12) in the conference.
RUNNING WILD AGAIN?
Missouri has rushed for well over 400 yards in each of its last two meetings with Tennessee.
Two years ago, Damarea Crockett ran for 225 of the Tigers’ 442 yards rushing in a 63-37 loss to Tennessee. Crockett was injured and didn’t play against Tennessee last year, but Missouri still ran for 433 yards. Larry Rountree III, who is part of a rotation with Crockett, had 155 of those rushing yards.
Crockett has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his last two games.
Missouri expects to play without tight end Albert Okwuegbunam for a second straight week due to a shoulder injury.
Okwuegbunam has 43 catches for 466 yards and six touchdowns this season. He leads Missouri in receptions and touchdown catches. Missouri also will be missing cornerback Adam Sparks.
Tennessee expects to have safety Trevon Flowers back Saturday after he missed five games with a broken collarbone.