KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop acknowledges it's difficult for him to gauge the strength of the Volunteers' pass defense, regardless of what the rankings suggest.
"It's weird going into Game 10 and saying I'm really not sure, but that's probably the truth of the matter," Shoop said. "I know what the statistics tell you – that we're one of the better pass defenses – but nobody throws the ball against us."
He should have a much better idea by the end of the week.
Tennessee's pass defense faces its biggest challenge of the season Saturday when the Volunteers (4-5, 0-5 SEC) visit Missouri (4-5, 1-4). The Tigers lead the Southeastern Conference in total offense, and quarterback Drew Lock's 31 touchdown passes are the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision player.
"He's going to play for a long time on Sundays," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Tennessee has allowed just 150 yards through the air per game, the fourth-lowest average of any FBS team. Part of the reason for that is because teams haven't needed to throw the ball against Tennessee.
Offenses have preferred to challenge a Tennessee run defense that allows over 5 yards per carry. Tennessee has owned a double-digit lead in just three games all season, so opponents haven't fallen far enough behind that they have to abandon the run.
Air Force is the only FBS team to face fewer pass attempts per game than Tennessee this season. Although Tennessee ranks fourth in terms of yards passing allowed per game, the Vols are 38th in pass efficiency defense .
"I do think we have a pretty good secondary and I think the guys are playing with confidence," Shoop said. "They believe that they're pretty good. I think we'll really, really be tested this week and know a little bit more about ourselves after this game."
Missouri has rebounded from a 1-5 start to win three straight games by an average margin of 38.7 points, including a 45-16 blowout of Florida last week. Lock has thrown 14 touchdown passes and only two interceptions during that winning streak.
"Over the course of the last three weeks, we're starting to play a lot more efficiently on both sides of the ball, playing together and playing smarter," Missouri coach Barry Odom said. "It's so important when you get into the month of November that you've got an opportunity to hit your stride."
Missouri throws for nearly 315 yards per game and has a remarkably balanced offense, with 299 passes and 300 carries this season. Missouri has three of the SEC's six leading receivers in J'Mon Moore (44 catches, 740 yards), Emanuel Hall (26-604) and Johnathon Johnson (34-563). Moore has an SEC-leading eight touchdown catches .
Tennessee can't count on bothering Lock with its pass rush. Missouri has allowed only eight sacks all year, and Jones notes that Lock's quick release enables him to avoid trouble even when he's under pressure.
The Vols say Lock has come a long way since last season, when he went 21 of 43 for 320 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in a 63-37 loss to Tennessee.
"He's a lot more calm this year, I'd say," Tennessee safety Micah Abernathy said. "He was pretty calm last year and mature, but I'd say this year he's a lot more poised and gets the ball out to his receivers."
Tennessee's well aware of the challenges involved in facing this offense.
Missouri utilized its uptempo attack to run 110 offensive plays against Tennessee last year, the second-highest single-game snap total any FBS team has had over the last two seasons. California had 118 snaps in the Golden Bears' 52-49 victory over Oregon last year and needed double-overtime to reach that total.
"The plays themselves are pretty simple, but the tempo that they go at is really kind of warp speed," Shoop said. "It's like somebody giving you an elementary math problem but asking you really quickly. It's like, 'What did you say?' and makes you a little bit hesitant."