- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at Tennessee.
Most important game: Nov. 22 vs. Missouri
Key players: By this point in the season, we'll know plenty about Tennessee's offense. Whether the quarterback situation is ironed out once Missouri gets into town is a mystery at this point, but all signs point to Justin Worley as being the starter heading into the season. His play will be crucial to Tennessee's success. Inconsistency at quarterback doomed this offense last year, but Worley showed some promise. Eyes also will be on sophomore Marquez North, who led Tennessee with 496 receiving yards last season. That number will have to increase if this offense is going to get off the ground, but North could have a big day against a very inexperienced Missouri secondary. The hope in Knoxville is that North gets some help from true freshman Josh Malone and junior college transfer Von Pearson. Both were on campus during the spring and both have the big-play ability to give Worley a chance to make some big plays against this secondary. Tennessee lost all five starters along its offensive line, but junior Marcus Jackson is back after redshirting last year. Behind him, you have running backs Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd, who will have to be active against a solid Missouri defensive line. Hurd could be the one to watch, as he has the skill to be a star in this league. On defense, linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson will be key. Johnson will have to direct things and contain Mizzou's explosive running game, while Maggitt will have to generate consistent pressure on quarterback Maty Mauk, considering the Vols also are rebuilding their entire defensive line. Safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton will have to be on their toes against Mauk, who isn't afraid to sling the ball around.
Why it matters: With so many questions surrounding this team, we don't know if the Vols are a bowl team right now. The month of September has zero gimmies for Butch Jones' group, and October features Florida, Ole Miss and Alabama. With trips to Oklahoma and Georgia on the September slate, Tennessee needs to go at least 2-2 before October arrives, where Tennessee has to get at least one win (Chattanooga). The Florida game (Oct. 4) is important -- and the Vols could certainly win it -- but the season isn't over if Tennessee loses it. That might not be the case against Mizzou. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are on the schedule in November, so those wins are important, too. But dropping the Missouri game could end all hope for the postseason. If Tennessee wants to make it back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010, it has to beat Missouri. Two years ago, this game took four overtimes to complete and pretty much cost the Vols a trip to the postseason. Tennessee can't afford to let history repeat itself.
21hSam Khan Jr.
2dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough