By the time Tennessee and Missouri begin play Saturday afternoon, the Volunteers will probably have a keen sense for how another SEC game of material importance, being played 565 miles away, might turn out.
Florida and LSU are scheduled to kick off in Baton Rouge a good 2 1/2 hours before the Vols (7-3, 3-3 SEC) and Mizzou (3-7, 1-5 SEC) kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
The Vols have a vested interest in the outcome of the LSU-Florida redo – shifted on the calendar and from Gainesville — affair because they need the Gators to lose their conference finale to have a shot at gaining a share of the East Division title and a berth in the SEC Championship Game.
But Vols coach Butch Jones said players won’t be scoreboard watching when they take on Mizzou.
"In terms of scoreboard watching, we don’t ever look up at the scoreboard," Jones said. "That’s kind of our mindset. You just keep your head down and you keep playing."
His players need to be concerned only with things they can control, he said.
"That’s out of our hands," he said of the Florida-LSU game. "We’re playing a team that’s coming in here with a lot of momentum, very, very explosive, and it’s going to take all of our focus and concentration on playing Missouri."
With their win last week over Kentucky, the Vols got back to .500 in conference play and now need wins over Mizzou and Vanderbilt their next two games to finish 5-3 in the conference. If the Gators lose at LSU, they also would end up 5-3, and the Vols hold the tiebreaker to get to the title game, where they would face No. 1 Alabama. The unbeaten Crimson Tide already has clinched the West.
The Vols go into their final home game unranked in the media and coaches’ polls after once reaching as high as No. 9 in the country. But consecutive losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, and South Carolina knocked them out of the Top 25. They are No. 19 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings but were among teams "also receiving votes" in this week’s media and coaches’ polls.
Their unranked status doesn’t bother Jones.
"That’s one of those things that we can’t control," he said. "The only way we can control it is to keep winning.
"I am proud of this football team and everything that it has accomplished. We’ve played the most difficult schedule, No. 1 in the country, and we’re 7-3. We’re playing meaningful games in November, and that’s what it’s all about."
Injuries have had a major impact on the Vols. Jones noted that the Vols have lost five defensive starters since the season began and have started eight different combinations in the secondary.
"It’s pretty hard to be consistent when you have that and when you look at the number of players who have missed games," Jone said. "I don’t know if there as ever been a season like this in football."
The game against Missouri will feature a matchup of two of the league’s most productive quarterbacks, at least when it comes to producing touchdowns.
Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs and Missouri’s Drew Lock are tied for the most touchdown passes among SEC quarterbacks with 21 each. Dobbs, however, also has rushed for seven scores to no rushing touchdowns for Lock.
Dobbs, in fact, is a major factor in Tennessee’s running game, especially since veteran running back Jalen Hurd left the Vols after seven games. Dobbs is the Vols’ leading rusher with 470 yards and is coming off a 147-yard rushing effort against Kentucky.
Missouri, which snapped a five-game losing streak with its win over Vanderbilt last week, gets its ground yardage the usual way. Running backs Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter have rushed for 837 and 575 yards, respectively. Crockett is coming off a 150-yard effort against the Commodores.
"We blocked well from the point of attack and Damarea, for a freshman, he’s gotten better every week," first-year coach Barry Odom said. "He works that way in practice.
"I’m excited to see him throughout the week the way that he practices, handles himself, and then prepares the right way. He’s got a bright future."