Week 1 preview: Tennessee-Martin will test preseason talk surrounding defense

Missouri should have an easy time taking care of an overmatched FCS opponent in UT-Martin.
Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters watches his defense work against the first team offense during a Missouri fall camp practice at the Mizzou Athletics Training Center on August 13, 2018.

Barry Odom stood on the sideline at Faurot Field last September as his defense limped through a season opener against an FCS opponent.

Missouri’s struggles against Missouri State were an uninspiring start, and even that turned out to be the only win in the Tigers’ first six games.

Missouri dominated on offense, but its defense foreshadowed shortcomings in last season’s 72-43 win. Missouri State traded touchdowns with the Tigers and led 35-34 late in the first half before Missouri was finally able to put together stops and pull away in the second half.

This year, Missouri will kick off the season against another FCS opponent at home. Missouri will take on the Skyhawks of Tennessee-Martin Saturday at 3 p.m. Central Standard Time at Memorial Stadium. The game will be televised on SEC Network plus.

Tennessee-Martin is an FCS school out of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Skyhawks went 6-5 last season and, with 13 returning prospective starters, were projected to finish third this year in the conference’s preseason poll. Here are some need-to-know notes ahead of the matchup.

  1. UT-Martin’s strength is its defense. Its 33 stack defense held opponents to 14.27 points per game last year. The Skyhawks’ only hope of staying in the game is getting early stops against Missouri’s rapid-fire offense.

The stack plays three linebackers, three defensive linemen and three safeties instead of the traditional 3-4 or 4-3 defense. This could match up well against Missouri’s prolific downfield pass attack, but should open up Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III for big games on the ground behind an offensive line that will have a huge size advantage over the Skyhawks.

  1. The performance of Missouri’s defense will prove to be a crucial litmus test of its alleged improvement after last season’s up-and-down showing.

UT-Martin plays a similar offensive style to some upper-tier SEC opponents with an emphasis on the run game (just a far worse version). The Skyhawks’ most potent weapon is running back LaDarius Galloway. Galloway is a preseason All-Ohio Valley selection and had 188 yards against an SEC opponent in Ole Miss last season.

Galloway and the Skyhawks’ running attack will be an off-brand and extremely lower quality version of what Missouri will face against teams like Georgia and Alabama, so any schematic difficulties will be concerning when looking toward conference play.

One of the themes of preseason camp has been how much the defense has improved. This will be the first telling sign as to whether the defense has caught up to the high-powered offense. Any trouble against an offense that averaged under 20 points in the FCS would raise a lot of concern going forward.

Either way, this should be an easy game for Missouri against an overmatched opponent. UT-Martin is being payed $475,000 to come play at Faurot Field for a reason: to be an early season tuneup for the Tigers. Therefore, any blowout should be taken with more than a few grains of salt, but a close call would raise some red flags this season.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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