Wednesday, April 23, 2014 · 11:17 p.m.

Vols’ 2012 opponent look ahead: Missouri

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When: Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012. Time TBA.

Where: Knoxville, Tenn.

Missouri at a glance:

Head coach: Gary Pinkel (12th season at Missouri; 85-54)

Mascot: Tigers

Conference: SEC (East)

All-time record: 629-520-52 (never played Tennessee)

Returning starters:  6 (offense), 7 (defense)

2011 overview: Missouri rides into the SEC coming off a four-game win streak and an 8-5 farewell campaign in the Big 12. November wins over Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas propelled the Tigers into the postseason, where they knocked off North Carolina 41-25 in the Independence Bowl. They may have participated in a better bowl game if not for some road woes along the way. The Tigers were 1-4 away from Columbia, falling at Arizona State, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Baylor. The defense was especially soft in those road losses, giving up 35.3 points per game. The 2011 season will be best remembered for what happened off the field. After months of speculation and negotiation, Missouri was officially announced as the 14th member of the SEC on Nov. 6, 2011, effective July 1, 2012.

Three matchups to watch in 2012:

1. Missouri’s passing attack vs. Tennessee’s secondary

Led by quarterback James Franklin, Missouri brings back many of the key cogs in a passing attack that averaged more than 230 yards per game through in 2011. Franklin threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Though prolific through the air, he also kept defenses honest with his 981 yards on the ground.

He will have experience and size in his group of receivers. Senior T.J. Moe is a veteran presence as the team’s returning receiver with 649 yards in 2011 on top of his 1,045 yards in 2010. The size comes from projected starters Marcus Lucas (6-5, 215) and L’Damian Washington (6-4, 195). The wild card will be freshman Dorial Green-Beckham, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound high school All-American who last February chose the Tigers over his pick of virtually any school in the nation. The depth and size of the Tigers’ receivers will be a challenge for a Tennessee secondary that struggled defending the deep ball in 2011 and that will be without projected starter Izauea Lanier, who was lost for 2012 because of academics.

2. Tennessee’s run game vs. Missouri’s defensive front

Missouri showed the ability to stop the run in the Big 12 in 2011. It finished third in the conference and tied for 29th nationally in rushing defense, allowing only 127.4 yards per game on the ground. Everybody will be curious to see if it can have similar success in the SEC. Former top junior college recruit Sheldon Richardson was a key reserve in 2011. He could provide a big boost at defensive tackle in 2012 if he can recover from off-season shoulder surgery. Jimmy Burge, Matt Hock and Lucas Vincent will all compete for playing time at defensive tackle. Brad Madison, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam are the names to watch at defensive end.

The Vols likely won’t provide the toughest challenge in the trenches, but they are hopeful to make huge improvements in the run game in 2012. The running back position is as open as any on the team, but a more experienced offensive line should make life easier for whoever is carrying the ball. The emergence of sophomore left tackle Antonio ‘Tiny” Richardson could be a key factor if the Vols want to average more than 90 yards per game in 2012.

3. Missouri’s running backs vs. Tennessee’s defense

Missouri running back Henry Josey was among the best backs in the nation in 2011 before a gruesome knee injury ended his season on Nov. 12. The extensive damage kept him out all spring and may cost him the 2012 season as well. Senior Kendial Lawrence is the best bet to take over the starting job full time in 2012. Lawrence was impressive down the stretch, racking up 317 yards and three touchdowns during the Tigers’ four-game winning streak to close out the season. He will compete with sophomores Marcus Murray and Greg White along with senior Jared McGriff-Culver in fall camp.

UT finished in the middle of the pack nationally in rushing defense in 2011, giving up 163 yards per game. The Vols should be adjusted by this point in the season to the new multiple 3-4/4-3 defense being implemented by defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Finding a nose tackle will be key for when the Vols operate out of the 3-4 look. Junior Daniel McCullers, who played close to 400 pounds in junior college, will be one option. Daniel Hood and Maurice Couch, both of whom started multiple games in 2011, could also settle in at that spot.

How will it play out?

It’s hard to believe that UT, a program that started in 1891, had to wait until 2012 to cross paths with Missouri. It shouldn’t take long for the two programs to build up some history, though — the Vols and Tigers will be in the SEC East together for the foreseeable future.

For that reason, this game takes on some added significance. The Tigers will be on a year-long quest to prove they belong in the SEC. The Vols are tired of sinking in the SEC pecking order and will want to establish dominance over Missouri in year one of the rivalry.

The Vols need this one. They may not be at the point of expecting them to win at Georgia or knock off Alabama, but coach Derek Dooley has to beat teams like Missouri, Mississippi State and NC State in order to save his job and help the program take a step back in the right direction.

The early guess is that the Vols will pull this one out against their newest SEC opponent. 

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