COLUMBIA — The Missouri football team landed safely Friday afternoon in Knoxville, Tenn., after a direct flight from Columbia Regional Airport, and will make the return flight a few hours after the final whistle of today's 11 a.m. kickoff against the Tennessee Volunteers.
The game will be televised on SEC Network.
College football teams try to be as efficient as possible when traveling even in normal years, but during a pandemic, plans have to be even more buttoned-up and precise.
"We're all at a disadvantage from the way we interact," Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said Tuesday. "You know, football's a chemistry game, it's a chemistry sport. There's a limited amount of communication and high fives and all the different things that you can do to build chemistry."
The team had no new positive tests to report from Sunday's round of testing, and with two other rounds Tuesday and Thursday, Missouri traveled safely to Tennessee with its 70-man road roster. Defensive backs coach Charlie Harbison, who had coronavirus-related issues late last week, will miss today's game as expected because of the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
The Tigers are using more buses to trek between the team hotel and stadium for both home and road games, and adjusted seating on the flight and roommates in the hotel to try to limit potential spread. This first road trip of the Drinkwitz era will test not only Missouri's playing ability away from home in an uncertain year, but also the self-discipline and team planning needed to preserve a "bubble" away from home.
"I think the most challenging, you know, again it's COVID, but you know we just gotta be cautious on the road, mask up and take care of the little things," senior running back Larry Rountree III said Wednesday, "because it's our first road trip, so we just gotta be very careful with who we're around. Because we're going to be around flight attendants, we're going to be around different people in the hotel, so we've just gotta be cautious of who we associate with in the hotel, from when we get there and when we leave.
"But, I mean, at the end of the day, only thing we can do is just mask up and just keep social distance while there. But I would say just dealing with COVID is probably the main concern, but that's gonna be for the whole — I don't know how long, years from now. At the end of the day we're going to have to learn to adapt to it."
Rountree will be a key figure in Missouri's game plan today. This is his third season as the feature back of Missouri's offense and the fourth year he's been trusted with a significant number of carries, and the Volunteers have been his best SEC East opponent to run against. He has 60 carries for 330 yards and two scores against Tennessee, and his 5.55 yards per carry is his best mark against an East foe, just ahead of the 5.14 yards per carry Rountree has averaged against Florida (185 yards on 36 carries). Both of Rountree's 100-yard rushing games in conference play have come against the Vols, in those back-to-back 50-17 drubbings in 2017 and '18.
He ran well enough behind Missouri's offensive line against a perennially-good Alabama run defense a week ago — 14 carries, 67 yards — that Drinkwitz wished he'd given the senior more carries. In a road environment (albeit less hostile than usual, with a restricted number of fans in the crowd), a dependable running back with a career 5.2 yards per carry average has tremendous value.
Drinkwitz said Tuesday he had no clue what to expect from the Tennessee crowd, as this will be his first ever trip to Neyland Stadium, and the first time he's ever been to Knoxville.
Tennessee has come a long way since those back-to-back 33-point losses, particularly in recruiting, under former Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt. The talent on the roster has improved, particularly along the offensive and defensive lines, as well as at wide receiver. After losing Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings from last year's team, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano still has seniors Josh Palmer, Brandon Johnson and Velus Jones Jr., who combined to catch 14 passes for 187 yards against South Carolina a week ago.
Guarantano had a career day in Columbia a year ago, passing for 415 yards as Missouri unsuccessfully scrambled to scheme up a way to stop the pass attack without both of its starting cornerbacks. DeMarkus Acy got hurt in pregame wamrmups, and Jarvis Ware, who left in the first quarter of that game with an injury, also suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of the Alabama game and is day-to-day. Drinkwitz said Tuesday Ware was hopeful to play against the Vols, but said Thursday on his weekly radio show Ware was "doubtful."
Ennis Rakestraw and Ishmael Burdine acquitted themselves well enough at corner against the Crimson Tide's NFL-ready receiving duo, and will have a somewhat easier task today. But they could be helped significantly if Missouri can generate some pressure against Guarantano.
Missouri registered two sacks against Alabama, and Tennessee gave up two sacks to the Gamecocks last Saturday.
"Alabama gave up 11 sacks last year, so the fact that we were able to get back there and and hit him, I think that trend will carry us through the rest of the season," defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said Wednesday. "Like I said, I don't want to overreact to a Week 1 deal, especially with who we were playing against and the uncertainties going into the season."