One year after setting a school record for losses and failing to win a single Southeastern Conference game, the Vols (5-5, 2-4) are a win away from bowl eligibility. A victory over Missouri (6-4, 2-4) on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) would assure that Tennessee avoids being stuck at home for the holidays again.
“It definitely hurt,” defensive end Kyle Phillips said of the Vols’ absence from a bowl game last year. “You think it’s fun to be home, but it’s not at all. It’s not at all.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the Vols’ first chance at becoming bowl eligible comes against Missouri. Tennessee closed the book on the Butch Jones era last year by firing him as coach the day after a 50-17 loss at Missouri in which the Tigers scored the game’s final 33 points.
While most of the other SEC teams spent December preparing for bowls, Tennessee was switching athletic directors during a tumultuous coaching search that eventually resulted in the hire of former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Tennessee has shown progress under Pruitt by winning three straight games, including a 24-7 triumph last week over No. 20 Kentucky. The Vols already have exceeded their win total from last year, when they finished 4-8.
“I’m impressed with what Jeremy has done in a short period of time,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence, playing really well, playing their best ball.”
So is Missouri, which heads into Neyland Stadium as a six-point favorite.
The Tigers have won two of their last three games and posted a decisive 38-17 victory over No. 15 Florida in their last road contest.
Pruitt said Missouri may be better than its record indicates. The Tigers lost 37-35 to South Carolina on a field goal in the rain with two seconds left and fell 15-14 to Kentucky when a pass interference penalty on Missouri led to the Wildcats scoring the winning touchdown on the final play.
WELCOME BACK, DOOLEY
Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley was Tennessee’s coach from 2010-12, posting a 15-21 record before being fired.
Dooley was the Dallas Cowboys’ receivers coach for five years before joining the Missouri staff.
Tennessee outside linebacker Darrell Taylor is the reigning SEC defensive player of the week after recording four sacks against Kentucky.
Taylor could have a tougher time applying pressure this week. Missouri has attempted the second-most passes (356) in the SEC this year but has allowed the second-fewest sacks (12) in the conference.
RUNNING WILD AGAIN?
Missouri has rushed for well over 400 yards in each of its last two meetings with UT.
Two years ago, Damarea Crockett ran for 225 of the Tigers’ 442 yards rushing in a 63-37 loss to the Vols. Crockett was injured and didn’t play against UT last year, but Missouri still ran for 433 yards.
Crockett has rushed for over 100 yards in each of his past two games.
Missouri expects to be without Albert Okwuegbunam for a second straight week because of a shoulder injury. The tight end has team-high 43 catches for 466 yards and a team-best six touchdowns. Missouri also will be without cornerback Adam Sparks.
Tennessee expects to have safety Trevon Flowers back after he missed five games with a broken collarbone.