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Confident No. 21 Tennessee ready for Mizzou next

By Teresa M. Walker
Associated Press
Missouri running back Larry Rountree III (34) and the Tigers return to Knoxville Saturday to take on the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium, where MU is 3-1.

The Tennessee Volunteers have picked up where they left off last season, and each victory just keeps building their confidence.

The 21st-ranked Vols now have won seven consecutive games and trail only Air Force and Notre Dame, winners of eight straight, for the longest winning streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The streak includes five straight in the Southeastern Conference, a drastic change from a year ago when they started 1-4. 

Belief in third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt couldn't be higher after beating South Carolina 31-27 to open this season. 

"Guys are just buying into the program, buying in to what Coach Pruitt is saying every day and it's just coming to light," pass rusher Deandre Johnson said. "These guys are working hard, busting their tails off and we just want to win, so it's coming to light."

Tennessee is back in Knoxville for its home opener, hosting Missouri on Saturday afternoon. Missouri is 3-1 at Neyland Stadium, but the coronavirus pandemic has stripped away much of the pageantry that visitors usually face. 

The Tigers lost their opener 38-19 to No. 2 Alabama, and now first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz gets to take them on the road. Missouri hasn't lost its first two games since 1996. Drinkwitz says the Tigers have plenty to work on after losing to Alabama. 

"Before we can win a championship, we’ve got to keep from beating ourself," Drinkwitz said. "And we had too many self-inflicted plays on offense, defense and special teams where we just didn't execute to the standard that we need to execute to." 

MAYS FREED

The campaign called #FreeCadeMays finally succeeded Wednesday night when SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey approved a number of waivers for players who transferred inside the conference. The lineman transferred from Georgia in January soon after his father, Kevin, sued the university over an incident that cost him part of a finger. 

Mays had to sit out the opener, but he's been practicing. He should move immediately into the starting lineup for a Tennessee offensive line that now is as strong as the Vols have had in a few years. 

"We've repped him all the way through camp with the twos at different positions just in case it did happen we would be ready," Pruitt said. 

STINGY D

The Tigers ranked 14th nationally in total defense last season, and they piled up nine tackles for loss against Alabama in the opener. The unit is led by junior linebacker Nick Bolton, and Missouri has a trio of safeties defending the back end in Joshuah Bledsoe, Tyree Gillespie and Martez Manuel, who had a team-high 3 1/2 tackles for loss. 

MORE HELP COMING

Tennessee allowed 290 yards passing in its opener, and now the Vols are poised to add some help. Starting safety Jaylen McCullough and cornerback Warren Burrell should be back to help the depth after cornerback Bryce Thompson moved to safety at South Carolina. 

Defensive end Darel Middleton also will have a chance to play after sitting out the opener. 

ROAD WARRIOR 

Missouri is 4-4 since joining the Southeastern Conference in 2012 in the Tigers' first road game of the season. Drinkwitz showed last season at Appalachian State he knows how to take a team on the road and win, going 6-0 with wins at North Carolina and South Carolina. 

STILL NEYLAND STADIUM

Tennessee will have fans inside the stadium with approximately 25% of capacity. There won't be the traditional Vol Walk before kickoff among all the changes for the pandemic. Senior wide receiver Brandon Johnson said it will be different, but it's till home. 

"It will be my first time ever playing in Neyland without all of the traditions, the things that we're so accustomed to and the things we love," Johnson said. "At the end of the day, it's still about football and that's what we're focused on. We're focused on getting our second win of the season, and that's the main goal."

Back at Rocky Top

WHAT: Missouri (0-1) at No. 21 Tennessee (1-0)

WHEN/WHERE: Saturday, 11 a.m., CDT, Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.

TV/RADIO: SEC Network (Comcast cable channel 284, 960 HD)/KMBZ (98.1 FM).

LINE: Tennessee by 12 1/2.

SERIES RECORD: Missouri leads 5-3.

WHAT'S AT STAKE? Missouri is looking for its first victory under first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz as the Tigers start a two-game road swing. Tennessee has a seven-game winning streak second only to Air Force and Notre Dame, both tied at eight straight, among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Vols also are working to erase all memories of last year's 1-4 start to the season. 

KEY MATCHUP: Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano against Missouri's defense. Guarantano threw for a career-high 415 yards the last time these teams met, the fourth-most passing yards in school history. The Tigers had nine tackles for loss in their season-opening loss to Alabama, and safety Martez Manuel had a career-best 3 1/2 tackles for loss. 

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Missouri: QB Shawn Robinson was 19 of 25 (76%) against Alabama, the best completion percentage by a Tigers quarterback in his first start since at least 2000. He sat out last season after transferring from TCU. 

Tennessee: Senior RB Ty Chandler averaged 6.6 yards per carry against South Carolina, piling up 86 yards on just 13 carries. 

FACTS & FIGURES: Mizzou is trying to avoid its first 0-2 start since 1996. ... Missouri is 3-1 at Neyland Stadium and leads the overall series 5-3. ... Missouri is 4-4 in its first road game of the season since joining SEC in 2012. ... Drinkwitz went 6-0 in road games last season as head coach of Appalachian State, including wins at North Carolina and South Carolina. ... Tennessee's lone win in Knoxville in this series was in 2016. ... Fan capacity at Neyland Stadium will be approximately 25%. ... This is the latest home opener for Tennessee since Oct. 20, 1962. ... This game is being played on the date originally scheduled before the SEC switched to a 10-game, league-only slate. ... The Vols have won four straight at home, outscoring opponents 119-48 in that stretch.

– Associated Press