After taking a one-week hiatus from SEC play, the Tennessee Volunteers (4-5, 0-5 SEC) once again return to conference competition against Missouri at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Coming off a week where the Vols allowed 48 points on 721 yards to the Troy Trojans, defense was a focal point this week in practice. Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said that he's more disappointed in himself than in any of his players.
"My hat is off to the kids because they came out here (Wednesday) and they gave everything they could. They are trying and they played hard in the game, but we just have to quit making the mental mistakes," said Sunseri. "I just have to keep pushing them and keep on finding out what is going to trigger them and make them better."
Sunseri has had a little extra help pushing the team this week in practice. Due to the defensive struggles throughout the season, head coach Derek Dooley, usually an offensive specialist, said he spent most of his time this week focusing on the defense.
"I have been spending all of my time over there and more to be just another eye to make sure that our players are out there not confused and (just) not thinking," said Dooley. "We have made some significant changes that I hope will show up a little big on game day, but it is not something that you can overhaul in one week."
The Vols' defense are going to need to be quick learners if they hope to stop Missouri starting quarterback James Franklin. Franklin has been a little banged up this year, completely missing two games and only seeing limited action in two more, but regardless, Sunseri said Franklin is still a dangerous player.
"The kid is a dang good football player," said Sunseri. "If you go with this kid's history and what he has done, he is a very, very good football player. He has great legs, he can deliver the ball (and) they have a great system."
Despite the defensive struggles, the Vols' offense has put together two very impressive games, led by starting quarterback Tyler Bray. Over the past two games, Bray has combined for 898 yards, nine touchdowns and only one interception. Despite these video-game-like numbers, Bray is not overlooking Missouri's defense, a unit who is only allowing 22 points per game.
"They have a great defensive line and are going to try and get after us," said Bray. "We have a great offensive line and it is going to be a great battle."
Missouri's "great" defensive line is led by junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who has 63 tackles and three forced fumbles this season. Dooley said he has a lot of respect for Richardson.
"He is a big-time defensive lineman. Big time," said Dooley. "He would be starting anywhere."
This could be a very important game for the Vols when it comes to bowl considerations, said Dooley.
"The reality is they know what is at stake and certainly going to the bowl game is a big deal," said Dooley. "It is still out there and it is our opportunity to take advantage of it."