Tribune Mizzou athletics reporter Eric Blum spoke with Blake Toppmeyer of the Knoxville News-Sentinel ahead of Missouri's home game against Tennessee on Saturday.
Toppmeyer is in his third season covering Tennessee football. Before that, he spent nearly four years at the Tribune covering Missouri.
Toppmeyer discusses the difference between the Missouri and Tennessee fan bases, the Volunteers' resurgent second half of the season and much more.
The conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
Blum: Do you have a favorite memory from your time covering Missouri athletics?
Toppmeyer: I covered Missouri non-revenue sports before I covered the football team. The main season I covered football in 2016, the Tigers weren’t particularly good. So I’d say the top memories include covering J’den Cox. He has such a vibrant personality and is an awesome athlete as well. I covered two of his three national championships, the first one in Oklahoma City and then either his second or third in St. Louis.
Blum: In your time on the Tennessee football beat, have you encountered as rabid a fan base as people make it seem?
Toppmeyer: It’s different, I’ll say, and the way I describe it to people is: Most Tennessee football fans, the Volunteers are their No. 1 team and it’s a huge gap to their No. 2 team. They might be Tennessee football fans, and they might also like Tennessee basketball or the Lady Vols, Titans or Braves. I think a lot of Missouri fans, the Tigers are their No. 2 team behind the Cardinals or Chiefs, or maybe Mizzou is No. 1 and right behind that is a team like the Royals. I don’t know that there’s a big separation a lot of times for Missouri fans and that’s OK, and perhaps even healthier, but a lot of Tennessee fans aren’t that way. They’re Vols football first and there’s an enormous gap to what’s in second.
Blum: It appears Missouri and Tennessee have both had Jekyll and Hyde seasons. What's been the overall narrative for the Volunteers? And what are your impressions of this year’s Missouri team?
Toppmeyer: They’re two of the more interesting teams in the Southeastern Conference for opposite reasons. The first few weeks of the season, Tennessee was a mess. It lost to Georgia State and BYU on its home field. The Volunteers were sitting at 0-2 for the first time since 1988 and head coach Jeremy Pruitt was close to being on the hot seat. And then, they’ve gone in the opposite direction since a 1-4 start. Tennessee has won four of its last five, and Pruitt looks pretty good and is for sure going to be the coach next season. Missouri is probably the most underachieving team in the SEC this season, a team that has quite a bit of talent and a manageable schedule. I think Missouri could’ve been a nine-win team and I can’t think of a conference team where it had realistic expectations and has underachieved to the level that Missouri has.
Blum: Outside of the quarterbacks, who are some other Tennessee playmakers Missouri fans should be aware of?
Toppmeyer: Ty Chandler is a solid running back and has got some home run potential. He’s not the biggest guy. He can run between the tackles, too. Tennessee’s strength is its wide receivers. Marquez Callaway is as good on 50-50 balls as probably anybody in the SEC. He’s probably not the best route-runner and he’s got good speed, not great speed. But in terms of throwing up a 50-50 ball, he’s as good as anyone in this conference. And Jauan Jennings is more of your possession receiver. He’s a good route-runner and a physical guy. He’s having a really solid senior season and probably will get some all-conference conversation. Defensively, they have some seniors that have stepped up lately. Guys like Daniel Bituli, who had 19 tackles against Kentucky; Darrell Taylor has established himself as one of the premier pass rushers in the SEC; and Nigel Warrior, a senior safety who is playing the best football of his life.
Blum: Missouri enters the game as a five-point favorite. Do you think that’s fair, and what is your final score prediction?
Toppmeyer: It was pretty curious. Every time I have a reaction to one of those spreads, I have to remind myself that those guys in Vegas more times than not know a lot more than we do when it comes to setting those betting lines. It did seem a little out of sorts compared to the way both teams are currently playing. I know Missouri has been better at home this season, but these feel like teams trending in opposite directions. If I was a betting man, I would take Tennessee in the points and I chose Tennessee to win this game outright ... 24-20. The strength of both teams is defense as both offenses haven’t played well in the last few weeks. Tennessee has shown in this recent stretch that it’s comfortable winning those low-scoring games.