No. 5 Tennessee (8-1, 4-1 SEC) closes out its home schedule on Saturday against Missouri (4-5, 2-4) with hopes of finishing undefeated at home for the first time since 2007.
The Vols are also looking to reestablish their position in the College Football Playoff after a 27-13 loss to No. 1 Georgia last week in Athens where the Bulldogs defense suffocated Tennessee’s top ranked offense.
“We had a couple opportunities but didn't hit them at times,” Vols’ head coach Josh Heupel said. “The other thing too was just, you look at some of the things that we did to ourselves, pre-snap penalties. That makes the game a whole lot tougher.”
Luckily for the Vols, they came out of the weekend with a better chance to make the CFP than they had going into the game after several top-10 teams lost over the weekend. Clemson, which was No. 4 at the time, lost to unranked Notre Dame, which almost guarantees that the Tigers will miss the playoffs.
Alabama also picked up its second loss of the season, which makes the Tides’ chances of reaching the CFP almost impossible.
Tennessee’s playoff fate now lies mostly in the hands of other teams. The Vols came in at No. 5 in this week’s CFP Poll with TCU sitting at No. 4. TCU has arguably its biggest test this weekend against No. 18 Texas in a game that could decide TCU’s playoff fate.
There are some other teams in the race as well, namely Oregon and USC, which both sit inside the top-8 with just one loss apiece.
The Vols still need to play their best football in their final three games. While all of the remaining games – Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt – should be easy wins, nothing is guaranteed in college football.
“There's a whole month of football,” Heupel said. “There's a lot of ball left to be played by everybody in the country. Up until this point we have done a lot of things right.”
The Vols will take it one at a time, and they shift their attention to Missouri first. The Tigers’ defense has been solid for most of the season despite the team’s struggles.
“They're incredibly physical on the line of scrimmage,” quarterback Hendon Hooker said. “Their linebackers read really well. Their safety is incredible, has good size and can move really well.”
Hooker is trying to get back on the Heisman campaign trail after struggling against Georgia’s defense last week. Hooker had an uncharacteristic 195 yards and no touchdowns while also throwing an interception.
“I think the quarterback will own some of the sacks, the quarterback will own some of the missed throws,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “Not to sound cliche about it, but it really is everybody's job to protect the quarterback. We talk about it every week, we talked about it again on Monday. It is all of our job to protect the quarterback.”
Saturday’s contest will also be senior day, meaning the Vols will have to balance the emotions of playing in Neyland one last time with the task at hand.
“A year ago, our guys handled that pretty well,” Heupel said. “It will be important that our guys do that here too. A lot of those guys are going play lot of football for us.”