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2015 Opponent Look Ahead: Oklahoma

Oklahoma Tennessee

Tennessee vs. Oklahoma

When: Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015; 6 pm ET

Where: Knoxville, Tenn. (Neyland Stadium)

Early line: Tennessee favored by 1 point (Golden Nugget)

Oklahoma at a glance:

Head coach: Bob Stoops (168-44 in 16 years at Oklahoma)

Conference: Big 12

All-time record: 850–317–53

2014 results: 8-5 (5-4 Big 12); Finished T-4th in the Big 12 and lost 40-6 to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl

Returning starters: 13: 7 (offense), 6 (defense)

2014 overview: A chic College Football Playoff and even national championship pick in the preseason, the 2014 season was shaping up about as expected through four weeks for the Sooners as OU took care of business against Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Tennessee and West Virginia.

A tight loss at TCU on Oct. 4 was the first sign of trouble, but it was two losses (Baylor, Kansas State) in the next four games that assured that OU wouldn’t reach the heights that many projected for the 2014 season. A mediocre campaign turned to disappointing for the Sooners with a regular-season ending loss to rival Oklahoma State that gave the Cowboys bowl eligibility, followed by a 40-6 blitzing at the hands of Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Individually, freshman running back Samaje Perine emerged as one of the best backs in the nation, setting the single-game rushing record against Kansas (427 yards) on his way to 1,713 yards on the season with 21 touchdowns. Quarterback play wasn’t as impressive, however, with preseason Heisman hopeful Trevor Knight putting together an underwhelming performance with a 56.6% completion percentage and 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. He’ll fight for a starting job with Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield and others in 2015.

The Sooners made some sweeping changes to the coaching staff and lost six important pieces to the NFL Draft. Still, with Perine, edge rusher Eric Striker, star receiver Sterling Shepard, cornerback Zach Sanchez and a few veteran options at QB returning, the Sooners are heading into 2015 as a projected top 20 to 25 team nationally.

Three early questions for the 2015 matchup:

1. Who will feel the most pressure?

This is a big one for both teams. There’s no denying that. The Sooners are out to prove a lot in 2015 after coming up short of expectations in 2014. OU has a warm-up contest against Akron at home, but won’t be able to prove much until its trip to Knoxville on Sept. 12. After folding down the stretch in 2014, how much pressure will the Sooners feel to show that they haven’t slipped too far? Tennessee, on the other hand, is being anointed as one of the top up-and-coming programs in the nation. Despite having not proven a ton on the field yet, the Vols opened as the early favorites against OU. Will the young Vols feel the pressure of being that preseason Top 25 team that they haven’t been in recent years? Both teams certainly could bounce back and still accomplish a lot in 2015 if they lose this one, but it’s a big early season matchup, and the team that plays looser might have the edge.

2. Can the Vols stop Eric Striker?

The Vols were overwhelmed by OU’s defensive front in Norman last year. Nobody personified that dominance more than outside linebacker/edge rusher Eric Striker, who absolutely killed the Vols with three QB pressures and two TFLs. It felt like he was in the backfield every play that UT dropped back more than a couple steps. He overwhelmed Tennessee’s weak offensive tackles, and those tackle spots are a huge question mark heading into 2015 as well for the Vols.

3. Who can establish the run?

Both teams bring some big-name backs into this contest. Perine is the headliner, but OU also features Alex Ross and Joe Mixon, while the Vols counter with an impressive duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Some of Oklahoma’s massive offensive line from 2014 has moved on, though veteran Ty Darlington returns to anchor a group that, at times, struggled with Tennessee’s athleticism last year. Tennessee not only couldn’t neutralize Striker, but struggled to get consistent push at OU last year. It’ll help UT that Oklahoma DT Jordan Phillips is off to the NFL, but the Sooners return their leading tacklers (Dominique Alexander, Jordan Evans) and several other experienced players in the front seven.

How will it play out?

Definitely too early to tell. Tennessee opened as a 3-point favorite, according to Golden Nugget, but that line moved down to one point after just one weekend of betting.

One thing is certain: These are not the same teams that met in Norman last year. The Sooners lost a good bit from that roster and won’t have the confidence, nor the home-field advantage, that they enjoyed in the 2014 matchup. Tennessee, on the other hand, should be improved at almost every position from the team that lost to OU 34-10 last season.

Players like Perine and Striker still make Oklahoma an extremely difficult opponent, however. And regardless of how the 2014 seasons ended up, and the state of both rosters, a 24-point margin of defeat is a tough thing to overcome in one year as well. But preseason rankings and oddsmakers seem to agree with our assessment – the Vols certainly have at least a decent chance to pull this one out and get 2015 rolling.

 

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