Tennessee will be met in Columbia Saturday by a staunch Missouri defense and an emotionally-charged environment electrified by Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel's final game. Pinkel officially announced his retirement effective at the end of the season Monday after 41 years in coaching while he battles lymphoma. Pinkel was diagnosed in May. The 14-year Tigers coach and Butch Jones know each other well, having both coached in the MAC together. Jones understands the challenges his team will face heading into a matchup with a team wanting to give its coach a dream-like sendoff.
"They've taken on the personality of their head football coach," Jones said of Missouri. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for coach Pinkel as a coach, but also as a person and an individual. I remember being a young coach in the Mid-American Conference and he was the head coach at Toledo. You look at everywhere he's been, he's won. He's done it his way. He's developed programs, and you always say when you leave a place, is it better than when you found it, and he's left Toledo setting the foundation of excellence and he's done the same at Missouri."
Jones called it an "honor and privilege" to coach in Pinkel's final game in Columbia, but isn't concerned with the atmosphere his team will embark on Saturday night. Simply playing in the SEC week-to-week has prepared his team for what's to come.
"We expect it every time we go on the road in the SEC," he said. "It's no different than any of the other venues that we've gone into. There's a lot on the line for both teams. We're playing for a lot. That comes with the maturity of our football team."
Josh Dobbs agreed with his head coach, saying Pinkel's imminent retirement shouldn't affect the way Tennessee approaches the game.
"It's always a challenge playing on the road in the SEC with SEC players and the atmosphere," Dobbs said. "That's a little bit of an advantage for them. Whenever you go on the road in the SEC, you are pretty much expecting a challenge. With emotions, I don't know much for them, but I know they are going to give us their best shot regardless of the situation."
Mizzou's defense has been one of the best in the country this season, allowing just 297.7 yards per game and 4.3 yards per play to rank No. 12 overall in the NCAA. Led by 2014 All-SEC linebacker Kentrell Brothers, the Tigers have developed into one of the most imposing defenses in the league.
"They are second in scoring defense, third in total defense and third in rush defense [in the conference]," Jones said. "It is going to be a great challenge for us. They play a multitude of different looks in terms of the back end of their defense schematically. Also, on their front seven, they are deep and experienced. They are a very physical football team."
Missouri ranks fifth in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 14 points a game, so Tennessee's offense — which managed just 24 points against a North Texas unit that ranked No. 124 in total defense last week — will have perhaps its stiffest challenge to date Saturday.
"Just all-around, they are a very solid defense, a very well-coached defense and a very disciplined defense," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "That's how they've been since we've played them. They start upfront strong and are very experienced in the secondary. They lead the SEC in a lot of categories so we all have respect for them and they do a very good job on the defensive side."
Butch Jones believes all of the players with minor injuries will once again practice this week, but their status for Saturday's game remains uncertain. Wide receivers Preston Williams and Marquez North and offensive linemen Brett Kendrick and Jashon Robertson are all expected to participate in practice this week leading up to Saturday's game.
"You're going to get tired of hearing me say this, but they're all going to practice," Jones said. "I think Jashon is more game ready than he's ever been. We'll know more a little bit tomorrow when the pads go on, but Preston is the same thing. They're all going ot practice today just like they did last week, but throughout the course of the game, they just weren't game ready."