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Blum’s Banter: Mizzou adjusts focus to No. 21 Tennessee

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri's Nick Bolton (32) and Tyree Gillespie (2) take down Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (2) during a Southeastern Conference game against Tennessee last season at Faurot Field.

Welcome to the second edition of Blum’s Banter, my weekly combination of looking at three questions facing Missouri football in its upcoming game and three key matchups that could make the difference.

Missouri is 0-1 in the Eli Drinkwitz era after last weekend’s loss to No. 2 Alabama, and the tests don’t stop now for the Tigers, as they head on the road to face No. 21 Tennessee on Saturday in front of one of the largest socially distant crowds of the season.

Without further ado, here’s this week’s banter:

Three key questions

1. How do Eli Drinkwitz and staff react to game film?

Missouri played one of the best teams in the country last weekend and got to assess where it stands on every front.

It’s clear the Tigers have plenty to work on. How do they refocus now that a different opponent is in their path — one that is nationally ranked but not quite as daunting?

Drinkwitz showed signs of already digesting last week’s game in his postgame press conference, blaming himself for a few missteps. With his full attention on breaking down game film with his new staff this past week, how quickly are the coaches able to fix the problems?

2. Were the Tigers’ troubles against Alabama self-inflicted?

Missouri lost to a legitimate national title contender and there’s no shame in that, especially during a pandemic-shifted season.

Of the troubles against Alabama, which were simply due to Jaylen Waddle and Co. being among the best players in the country, and which were more Missouri getting in its own way?

Drinkwitz said multiple times how important it was to limit negative plays, and Missouri had several of them against the Crimson Tide. Pay attention to how quarterback Shawn Robinson responds to broken plays — does he take a bad sack or throw the ball away — and whether the Tigers’ are able to secure the ball, which they lost twice on fumbles last week.

3. Will being on the road affect Missouri’s performance?

It will be a relatively short flight from Columbia to Knoxville, but with a limited travel roster and social distancing in effect on the plane and team buses, will all the health precautions and changes impact the Tigers’ focus?

During their first game, the Tigers were in familiar surroundings on game day and got ready in a locker room they know well.

While every road game every season brings unfamiliar surroundings, how does Missouri overcome some of the additional challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic? The circumstances surrounding each game have never been more in flux for these players and coaches.

Three key matchups

1. Larry Rountree vs. Tennessee run defense

One of the biggest takeaways so far about how Missouri wants to operate under Drinkwitz is how important Rountree is to those efforts.

Given the talented group of running backs the Tigers have, giving Rountree 14 carries for 67 yards last week could appear to be a decent amount. But not for Drinkwitz and not for Rountree.

Drinkwitz said after the game he needs to give the senior the ball more. The ability of Missouri to establish its running game could go a long way in deciding the outcome against Tennessee, which gave up only 89 rushing yards to South Carolina in its opening victory.

2. Jarrett Guarantano vs. Tigers secondary

Guarantano is one of the Southeastern Conference’s most experienced quarterbacks, and people in Knoxville have been waiting for the senior to take his game to the next level.

Against Missouri and its depleted secondary last season, Guarantano threw for over 400 yards in one of the best games of his college career. Last week against South Carolina, he threw for 259 yards off 19 completions.

The Tigers have reloaded in the secondary, but with Jarvis Ware day-to-day after suffering a knee injury against Alabama, Guarantano could excel for the second straight year against Missouri.

3. Nick Bolton vs. Vols offense

Bolton is Missouri’s defensive leader, and while he wasn’t quiet in the least against Alabama, he could have a louder presence against the Volunteers.

Against the Crimson Tide, he made eight tackles, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery, which picked right up from where he left off in 2019.

With plenty of eyes now on him to lead the defense, expectations for his play only grow. Tennessee’s offense is good, but nowhere near the strength of Alabama. If Bolton comes with another strong effort, he could tip the scales and help Missouri pull off the upset.

eblum@columbiatribune.com

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Missouri's Larry Rountree (34) runs the ball during a Southeastern Conference game against Tennessee last season at Faurot Field.