KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The situation is clear-cut for No. 19 Missouri.
If the Tigers (8-2, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) win Saturday at Tennessee (5-5, 2-4) and Nov. 28 against Arkansas (5-5, 1-5), they make a second straight appearance in the Southeastern Conference championship game. If Missouri loses to either of those teams, No. 9 Georgia (8-2, 6-2) earns the trip to Atlanta instead.
“We have to go out and we have to face every game like it’s the championship game,” Missouri center Evan Boehm said. “We have to go out there, and we have to play like this is our last game. I think that you guys kind of saw that last week (in a 34-27 victory) against Texas A&M, when we were just having fun and flying around and just enjoying being out there. We have to start these next couple of weeks like we finished this last week.”
The state of the Eastern Division race has made the Georgia Bulldogs major Tennessee fans, at least for one week. Georgia defensive end Sterling Bailey joked this week that he even planned to sing “Rocky Top.” Georgia is 10th and Missouri 20th in the College Football Playoff rankings.
But the Volunteers aren’t thinking much about their opportunity to play the role of spoiler. They have enough at stake already, as a victory over Missouri would make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
“Right now, the way I see it, they’re in our way to get to a bowl game, and we’re in their way to get to the SEC championship,” Tennessee defensive tackle Jordan Williams said.
Tennessee enters this game at much less than full strength.
Leading tackler A.J. Johnson and cornerback Michael Williams were suspended Monday, one day before they were named as subjects of an ongoing rape investigation in which no charges have been filed. Junior center Mack Crowder will miss the game with a high ankle sprain and knee sprain. Junior safety Brian Randolph will sit out the first half of Saturday’s game after committing a targeting penalty last week in a 50-16 victory over Kentucky.
Tennessee’s players said the investigation hasn’t distracted them this week.
“We don’t let that stuff get to us,” Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton said. “We’re not worried about that. We’re here to play football. We can’t worry about stuff that doesn’t pertain to the field.”
Things to watch
TENNESSEE’S RETOOLED DEFENSE: Tennessee will be relying on freshmen to fill some key roles on defense, particularly in the first half when Randolph is out. Freshman Jakob Johnson likely will start in place of A.J. Johnson at middle linebacker. Freshman Todd Kelly Jr. will start in Randolph’s place at safety. That means Tennessee could end up starting four true freshmen on defense, with end Derek Barnett and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley joining Jakob Johnson and Kelly.
MISSOURI’S ROAD STREAK: Missouri is seeking its 10th straight road win, which would set a school record. The Tigers won nine straight road games from 1978-80. Missouri’s current road streak began last season.
DUELING PASS RUSHERS: This game features two of the SEC’s top pass rushers. Missouri defensive end Shane Ray has an SEC-leading 13 sacks and also has 18 tackles for loss, which puts him in a tie for first place in that category with Barnett. Although Barnett is only a freshman, he already has nine sacks, with eight of them coming in Tennessee’s last four games.
SURGING RUNNING BACKS: Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd is seeking his third straight 100-yard performance after rushing for 125 yards in a 45-42 overtime victory at South Carolina and 118 yards against Kentucky. Missouri’s Russell Hansbrough rushed for a career-high 199 yards last week at Texas A&M and scored from 45 and 49 yards away.
DOBBS’ BIGGEST TEST: Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs made his first career start against Missouri last year and threw for 240 yards and two interceptions in a 31-3 loss. Dobbs has come a long way since, as he’s accounted for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns in his last three games. In his two previous starts this season, Dobbs has put up huge numbers against South Carolina and Kentucky. Missouri has a much better defense than either of those teams and should give Dobbs a tougher challenge.