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Preview: Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma

Butch Jones-1

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma

Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET

Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium (82,112) • Norman, Okla.


Series Record: 1-1

 Setting the table

Tennessee did an admirable job navigating a tricky two-game stretch to start the season, knocking off Utah State and Arkansas State. Those were quality programs that could’ve defeated Tennessee if the Vols made mistakes or weren’t focused. But now the competition jumps to a whole new level as Tennessee gets set to travel to No. 4 Oklahoma to play the Sooners, a legitimate College Football Playoff hopeful. Oklahoma returns a fair amount of its squad that knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last season and is off to a 2-0 start this season as well with easy wins over Tulsa and Louisiana Tech. It will be a tremendous challenge for a young Tennessee squad, nearly half of which has never played in a road game, much less against one of the best teams in the country. How far along is Tennessee in its rebuilding process? We’ll get a better idea after Saturday night.

 Who has the edge?

When Tennessee throws…

The Vols certainly have a chance to move the ball some via the passing game. Though Oklahoma has a veteran and talented secondary, expect Marquez North, Pig Howard, Josh Smith, Josh Malone and company to move the ball – especially if Justin Worley continues to make good decisions as he has through two games. Two things are really working against Tennessee’s passing game, however. One is the lack of protection, which really could be exposed against an athletic and aggressive defensive front for Oklahoma. Outside linebacker Eric Striker is especially one to watch coming off the edge. Secondly, the ankle injury to Von Pearson will certainly limit some of Tennessee’s threat through the air as well. Look for Tennessee to have pretty good numbers at the end of the day, but it won’t come easily. Edge: Even

When Tennessee runs…

The Vols are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this season and are only getting ‘efficient’ runs that go for 4+ yards or a first down a little over half of the time. Oklahoma hasn’t given much so far this season, holding its first two opponents to an average of 2.35 yards per carry. It’s extremely unlikely that the Jalen Hurd-1-3Vols will be able to just line up and pound the ball against OU’s front. That just doesn’t seem to be in the DNA of this Tennessee team. It struggled to that against Utah State and Arkansas State. The Vols will need to use the pass to set up the run. After a slow start against ASU, the Vols did just that and started finding some room on the ground. But especially if the Vols fall behind early, it could be an ugly day statistically on the ground. Look for OU to have the decided edge here. Edge: Oklahoma

When Oklahoma passes…

Replacing a large percentage of its production at wide receiver was one of the few challenges this Oklahoma roster had coming into 2014. The Sooners are off to a good start in that area. Junior receiver Sterling Shepard – one of the fastest players in the Big 12 – has taken on the role of the go-to guy with 226 yards and two TDs through two games. Quarterback Trevor Knight does a good job moving around in the pocket and extending plays. Their play-action game is deadly too – freezing defensive backs and providing some huge windows for Knight to put the ball into. Tennessee’s secondary has been pretty good so far this year. It contained Utah State star QB Chuckie Keeton in the opener and didn’t give up too much down the field to Arkansas State last week either. But Oklahoma is a much bigger test. It might not be a field day for Knight, but expect him to move the ball efficiently, keep the Sooners in reasonable down-and-distances and put points in the board. Edge: Oklahoma

When Oklahoma runs…

The Sooners run by committee with three backs – Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine – all rushing for at least 100 yards and a touchdown so far this year. Ford brings the most speed of the bunch, while Ross and Perine are a little more balanced. They’re all a threat for a big play at any point. The biggest question for Tennessee is if the Vols’ undersized defensive line can get off blocks from a massive and experienced Oklahoma offensive line that averages around 320 pounds per man. “One thing we’ve heard since we’ve all been playing is, the low man wins,” said defensive coordinator John Jancek. “The second point of leverage is hand placement. Inside hands win. We have to do a good job at those points and just keep fighting.” Expect Tennessee to use its speed and leverage to disrupt a few running plays, but, overall, OU’s size and power should win out up front. Edge: Oklahoma

Special teams…

Oklahoma senior kicker Michael Hunnicutt has converted an impressive 86.3 percent of his career field goal attempts and is perfect (3/3) to start this season out. Senior punter Jed Barnett is reliable as well with over 70 career punts to his credit and a career average of 41.5 yards per punt. Ross and Shepard are both dangerous in the return game as well. Tennessee, meanwhile, is still a huge work in progress on special teams. Though kicker Aaron Medley and punter Matt Darr are expected to be healthier this week, neither has been consistent this season, though both have shown flashes. Kick coverage, protection and the return game have all been shaky as well at time. The Vols need to take a big step in this area on Saturday. If not, Oklahoma could steal some points on a UT error or perhaps a return of their own. Edge: Oklahoma

 What Oklahoma is thinking…

This is our year. The stars have aligned and we’re in great shape to make it to the College Football Playoffs if we take care of business. We can’t overlook Tennessee, because the Vols have some good players, but if we play our game on Saturday, we’re too big, experienced and athletic to lose this game. We’ve been great in the first half so far this season and we’ll jump out to a lead, get the young Vols rattled, get our crowd in the game and have it wrapped up by about the third quarter. We can make a statement to the nation on Saturday.

 What Tennessee is thinking…

Nobody is giving us a shot in this one. We realize Oklahoma is a very good team, but so are we. We beat two very good programs to start the season with room to spare and we’re ready to take that next step. It won’t be easy. We need to play our best football and capitalize on a few Oklahoma mistakes. We’re overmatched at a few spots, but effort and scheming can help neutralize that. This is no Oregon situation – we’re faster and more athletic this year. We’ll stick around in this game and have a shot in the second half.

 What RTI is thinking…

Oklahoma is the better football team. We’re all in agreement about that. The talent gap might not be as wide as some people think nationally, but the experience edge is decisively in OU’s favor. That, plus taking a young Tennessee team on the road for the first time, will be too much for the Vols to pull out a win on Saturday. We’ll have varying opinions on how much the Vols will lose by (our official picks will be posted Saturday morning), but we’re all in agreement this will be UT’s first L of the season.

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