This one is tough – I’ve gone and back and forth on it all week. I think this is a one-possession game, which is kind of my code language for, “I honestly don’t know.”
While Butch Jones calls the opener the “game of the unknowns,” that is actually more what I feel about this one. We saw just enough of both UT and Oklahoma against inferior opponents last week to actually raise more questions than answers. For example, is UT’s offensive line really that good, or was that more a result of Bowling Green’s poor defense? Is Tennessee’s secondary really that vulnerable, or was Bowling Green’s system just that good offensively? Is Oklahoma more like the team that was slow out of the gates a bit against Akron or the one that scored seemingly at will later in the game?
I think both teams can move the football with some regularity. I’m not overly-impressed with OU’s secondary and the defensive front isn’t quite what it was in 2014. Tennessee, meanwhile, certainly appears to be better on the offensive line and if the running game can be even half as potent as it was against BGSU, the Vols should score a significant number of points. Perhaps most importantly, quarterback Joshua Dobbs is going to move around and help this unit out. Justin Worley was a sitting duck at times last year in Norman.
But Oklahoma should move the ball well too. I have a feeling they have a target on Emmanuel Moseley and Malik Foreman after they struggled last week. The Vols will want to provide as much safety help as possible, but that will limit the amount they can help out in the box, and thus possibly open up some room for OU’s talented backs and require the Vols to get some pressure with just four. They should be able to do that against a questionable OU offensive line, but after struggling against Bowling Green in that area, they’ll have to prove it. Mayfield has a quick trigger too – they won’t have long to get there.
All that to say, I’m expecting a lot of points – likely in the 60-70 range total. Then it just comes down to who makes the play late. It might be a turnover, a made or missed field goal or a perfectly-thrown ball into the end zone for a key late touchdown. Maybe Tennessee is ready to take the next step, win its second game against a ranked opponent in the last 29 attempts and make a huge statement about the growth of the program. Perhaps they’ll pull an ’06 Cal, an ’09 Georgia or a game like that and blow the doors off a shell-shocked opponent.
But I’m going to put the onus on the Vols to prove me wrong in this one. Until I see this program regularly show that it can win these types of games – with the hype, the national attention and the pressure – against a talented opponent, it’s tough to pick Tennessee and feel good about it.
Pick: Oklahoma 42-35 (overtime)
MVP: Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
If the Sooners pull out the win, I think a huge day from quarterback Baker Mayfield will be a big part of it. It isn’t difficult to see him putting up 350+ yards through the air and finding the gaps in a Tennessee secondary that struggled last week. He’ll hit a few deep balls, but make most of his living hitting quick timing routes, especially against any defensive back not named Cam Sutton.
What a crazy game to try and pick. We might as well have not seen either of these teams play in week one, because neither team showed a lot of what I think we can expect to see today. Oklahoma struggled early and pulled away late in Norman last week over Akron as new Sooner quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for 388 yards and three touchdowns. Tennessee seesawed a bit with Bowling Green in a strange game and gave up a ton of yards through the air, but they also rushed for nearly 400 yards and won by 29 points.
There are fair questions for Tennessee entering into this match up. Is Tennessee’s running game going to be powerful enough to move the football against the Sooner defense? Is Tennessee’s offensive line improved enough to protect Joshua Dobbs against Eric Striker and a Sooner front seven that will likely send pressure all night long? Is Joshua Dobbs ready to take that next step as a quarterback and deliver accurate passes down the field when the Sooners force him into passing situations?
These are questions that will all have answers tonight, but here are some things we already know about this game.
This is not the same Tennessee team that lost 34-10 in Norman last year. Tennessee is better at all nearly all 22 starting spots this year, and I don’t know that you can say the same about Oklahoma. The 34-10 score from a year ago would have looked a lot different if not for two Justin Worley interceptions in the end zone – one of which was returned 104 yards for a touchdown. Tennessee got better as the 2014 season unfolded, winning four of their last five games and taking the TaxSlayer Bowl in dominating fashion 45-28 over Iowa. Oklahoma, on the other hand, got worse in 2014. The Sooners lost five of their last nine games, including three of their last five in a season that ended with a 40-6 thrashing by Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Oklahoma lost a lot off of that defense that struggled late in the season, while the Vols returned almost everyone from a defense that improved down the stretch. The Sooners are breaking in a new offense and new quarterback, while Tennessee enters year three in their offensive system with a quarterback who knows how to run it.
National media is picking Oklahoma, and I don’t blame them. They want to see Tennessee prove they can win games like this before they start picking them to win…I get it. Tennessee also hasn’t won in gray jerseys, a checkered stadium or against ranked teams with any consistency in a long time…Again, I get it. But Tennessee is the better team here. They are familiar with their systems, they are playing at home and they are quietly confident about their ability. Neyland will be a raucous environment from start to finish, and I truly get the sense that this team has something to prove.
You’re going to think I’m crazy…I get it.
Pick: Tennessee 42-24
MVP: Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
Oklahoma held Tennessee’s defensive linemen all game long in Norman a year ago, and my guess is that Tennessee’s coaching staff has made tonight’s referee crew well aware of it. Oklahoma’s tackles are big, but they aren’t very athletic. When you can’t move well and you are facing fast rush-ends, you have to hold so you don’t get beat. I think some early holding calls will shake the Sooners offensive line, and then Barnett and Maggitt will tee off all night long. I expect sacks, hurries, pressures, batted balls…etc. to throw the Sooners offense into a funk, which will lead to a turnover or two and good field position for the Vol offense.
We’re going to learn a lot about these two teams today. Is Oklahoma’s run game as bad as it looked against Akron? Is their passing game as potent as it seemed last week? Is Tennessee’s secondary as porous as it looked at times against Bowling Green? And exactly how improved is Tennessee’s offensive line? We should have answers about 9:30 pm tonight.
Going back to last year, the Vols lost games in which they handily lost the battle at the line of scrimmage. They got owned at OU, against Missouri, against Georgia (at times) and against Florida. Alabama’s offensive line neutralized UT’s defensive front. Conversely, the Vols won the day against Kentucky, South Carolina and Iowa. Tennessee needs to win those battles today and they’re going to have a great chance to given some personnel changes on both teams.
Oklahoma’s offensive line has just one returning full time starter – even with an experienced group last year, they struggled to slow Tennessee’s front seven. The Vols should put some pressure on Baker Mayfield. How quickly they’re able to get to him, and how effectively they’re able to plug running lanes for Mixon and Perine, will play a huge role in this game. Pressure on OU’s young offensive line would certainly go a long way towards minimizing Tennessee’s weaknesses in the secondary and at linebacker.
Emmanuel Moseley and Malik Foreman are sure to be tested early and often by Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal and the rest of Oklahoma’s dangerous receiving corps. If they struggle like they did last week, it’ll be a long evening for the men in orange.
On offense, the revamped Vol offensive line will have a chance to prove its worth against a dynamic Sooner front seven which has the tools to make things tough for the Vol ground attack and passing attack. Joshua Dobbs will have to make some plays with his legs for Tennessee to win, but he also has to show that he can efficiently pick Oklahoma’s weak secondary apart from the pocket. Just as OU’s receiving corps is licking its chops to attack UT’s secondary, the Vol receiving corps has to be looking forward to going up against a Sooner defense which ranked 120th nationally against the pass last season.
The special teams game should be close as well. The Vols need Trevor Daniel and Aaron Medley to play their best football. Missed field goals, of which there were two last week, cannot happen today. A big return from Sutton or Berry could be a game changer. Shepard and Neal have the ability to change the game for OU as well, so Tennessee’s coverage units will have to be on alert.
There’s no other way to put it: These are two every evenly matched teams. They rank 11th and 12th in ESPN’s Football Power Index. They rank within a couple of spots of each other in CFBMatrix.com’s overall talent rankings. And that wasn’t the case last year when the Vols were decidedly outmanned in Norman just a year ago – which shows you how far Tennessee has come as a program in just 12 months.
But have the Vols come far enough to pick up just their second win against a ranked team in 29 games? It’ll take the best overall effort from a Vol football team in years to pull off the victory. But with Dobbs at quarterback, Oklahoma’s propensity to struggle with mobile QBs, a rocking Neyland and a young Sooner offensive line, there’s no reason the Volunteers can’t win this game.
When two evenly matched teams play, I’ll take the home team with the more dynamic quarterback in a close one every time.
Pick: Volunteers 38-35
MVP: Tennessee Quarterback Joshua Dobbs
This one is easy – Dobbs didn’t play against Oklahoma last year. His mobility will change the game. He’s also a much improved passer than he was last season and should be able to make OU pay from the pocket. A late scramble or two from Dobbs proves to be the difference in this one.