Here was the script: Missouri would enter the SEC with a thunderous offense led by one of the nation's most dynamic playmakers. The Tigers would surprise people who thought the offense would wilt against SEC defense, and quarterback James Franklin might have an outside shot at the Heisman Trophy as he perfected his rhythm in his second year as starter.
The reality? Missouri is 4-5 overall, 1-5 in the SEC and Franklin has struggled when he hasn't been injured or on the verge of being benched.
"They haven't had the success that they probably anticipated," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said politely.
The good news for Missouri and Franklin comes in the form of the Tennessee defense, ranked last in the SEC and 112th in the nation. For a struggling quarterback, the Vols' beleaguered secondary represents a potential feast.
"(Franklin) is the real key to them," Dooley said. "He will be there on Saturday, so we have to defend him."
The Vols (4-5, 0-5) play the Tigers on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.) at Neyland Stadium.
In 2011, Franklin was one of the Big 12's most exciting players, throwing for 2,865 yards, running for 981 more and accounting for 36 touchdowns. This season, he has 1,057 yards passing and 104 rushing with just four touchdowns. (For comparison, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray has thrown for 898 yards and nine touchdowns in the last two weeks).
Franklin injured his shoulder in Week 2 and a minor controversy erupted when he declined painkillers that might have helped him return more quickly due to his personal beliefs. Although coach Gary Pinkel and Franklin eventually patched up their differences over the situation, Franklin never seemed to recover his confidence. A knee injury in a loss to Vanderbilt set him back again.
Franklin returned to action last Saturday at Florida and looked efficient at times, completing 24 of 51 passes for 236 yards. But the Tigers could muster few points in the 14-7 loss, stalling drives in Florida territory. Most damningly, Franklin tossed four interceptions after throwing only two all season.
"The kid is a dang good football player. In any game you can have a bad game," said Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. "We're expecting him to come in here and play his best, and we have to play our best."
Tennessee, which allowed 721 yards to Troy last Saturday, has struggled against offenses in the Missouri mold. But Franklin's propensity for interceptions last week has to be somewhat encouraging for the Vols. Turnovers were supposed to be a hallmark of this year's defense, but after forcing four in the opener against North Carolina State, the Vols have recovered four fumbles and made six interceptions in eight games.
After the painkiller tiff earlier in the season, Pinkel has rallied around his embattled quarterback. The expectations for the season haven't been met, Pinkel said, but it's not on Franklin's shoulders alone.
"This is not a normal 'the guy's having a tough year.' He's having a tough year because a lot of things have happened to this guy. He's been through hell," Pinkel said on Wednesday's SEC teleconference. "But this is all going to make him tougher. The quarterback's got to have that mental resiliency, that mental toughness. He's getting that. He's getting calloused up a little bit. That's OK. That'll make him a better player down the road.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.