Oklahoma Sooners vs. Tennessee Volunteers Complete Game PreviewSeptember 8, 2015
Oklahoma Sooners vs. Tennessee Volunteers Complete Game Preview
After Tennessee and Oklahoma disposed of MAC opponents in Week 1, they'll lock horns in a pivotal out-of-conference battle in Neyland Stadium this weekend that could set the tone for the season.
Both teams have something to prove to stay in the Top 25, and the nation will see which one is a real contender.
The No. 19-ranked Sooners dominated Akron in the opener, winning 41-3 and overwhelming the Zips at times, despite a sometimes shaky offensive line performance. New quarterback Baker Mayfield impressed all around, distributing the ball to his playmakers.
The 25th-ranked Vols had a little more trouble with an offensive-minded Bowling Green team that was a whole lot peskier than a 59-30 final score suggests. While UT did what it wanted offensively, the Vols were beaten multiple times by the deep ball.
They'll have to get that rectified quickly against Mayfield, Sterling Shepard and Co. Also, it's nearly impossible to key only on the pass when Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon are in the backfield.
Not only will Tennessee be trying to announce its emergence back on the national stage, it'll be trying to avenge a 34-10 setback to Oklahoma last season.
That final score was lopsided, but a lot of that is because former UT quarterback Justin Worley threw two picks in the end zone, one of which was returned 100 yards for a touchdown.
Coach Butch Jones' team should be much better than it was a season ago, but everybody will find out Saturday.
Date: Saturday, Sep. 12
Time: 6 ET
Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee
Radio: Vol Network, Oklahoma Sooners Sports Network, Sirius 126/XM 192
Spread: Pick, according to Oddsshark.com.
Tennessee Keys to Victory
There have been perceived big games in Neyland Stadium in recent years, but let's face it: Because of the expectations surrounding this year's Vols and Oklahoma's marquee name, this is at least the biggest since 2012.
That year, ESPN GameDay was in Knoxville for the 23rd-ranked Vols' showdown with No. 18 Florida in what wound up a 37-20 loss that spelled the beginning of the end of the Derek Dooley era.
This one is going to be rocking in Knoxville. The university is calling for fans to "checker" Neyland Stadium in orange and white. It's going to be a night game, and UT fans are starved to follow a contender. They'll be full-voice, and it's going to be rowdy.
If the Vols can score quickly or make a big play on defense or special teams, the top may come off. There have been times when the stadium was so loud the place shook, and that place pulsed the entire game.
If UT feeds that energy early, the Vols will be able to feed off it all night.
For anybody who may think Tennessee's 399 rushing yards weren't that big of a deal against a Bowling Green defense that isn't expected to be good, think again.
Just three FBS teams had more rushing yards, and the Vols' ground surge came behind an offensive line that struggled mightily a season ago.
Against comparable opponents last year, UT was still pitiful running the ball. The Vols wound up with 110 yards on a 2.8 average against Utah State, 168 on a 3.7-yard average against Arkansas State and they netted 123 yards on the ground against UTC for a 2.9-yard average.
The bottom line is this Tennessee offensive line is drastically better this season, and with Alvin Kamara (15 rush, 144 yards, 9.6 average, two touchdowns) complementing Jalen Hurd, the Vols are really good in that facet.
"That is what we envisioned," UT coach Butch Jones told VolQuest.com's Rob Lewis. "They feed off each other. The great thing about them is that they're selfless. When one scores we all score and you could see the excitement in them, in their body language whether it was Jalen or Alvin."
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord needs to stay run-oriented until he's forced out of it.
Dominating Oklahoma on the ground will be a lot more difficult than whipping up on the Falcons. If UT can do it, the Vols will leave Neyland 2-0.
Few teams gave up more big plays than Tennessee did in the opening week.
You aren't going to beat many teams giving up 11 plays of more than 20 yards, and that's exactly what the Vols did against the Falcons.
There were several times UT defensive backs were on islands against Bowling Green receivers and were simply beat one-on-one. Quarterback Matt Johnson made NFL throw after NFL throw, and the Vols' vaunted pass rush was thwarted by an experienced offensive line.
UT coach Butch Jones made no bones about what needs to happen, stating the pass defense must get better "in a hurry" (via VolQuest.com).
The entire defense must improve this week, and while it starts with more pressure on OU quarterback Baker Mayfield, it ends with rattling cages in the defensive backfield.
The big plays must end, and the Vols have to keep everything in front of them. Bowling Green had underrated athletes, but this is Oklahoma. The Sooners have stars everywhere, and they can score in a hurry in offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's Air Raid.
Oklahoma Keys to Victory
You've got to know that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is licking his chops preparing to unleash his star receiver Sterling Shepard against UT's struggling secondary.
Last year, Shepard torched Tennessee for 109 yards on five catches.
After snagging three balls for 68 yards in the first game against the Zips, Shepard has to be itching to get a big game under his belt. He also hasn't yet reached the end zone, and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has to be thinking up innovative ways to get the junior in matchup nightmares.
If the Vols are smart, they'll shadow Shepard with star cornerback Cameron Sutton as much as they can. But they may not always be able to do that.
If not, Emmanuel Moseley, Malik Foreman and Co. must be better prepared to shut down big plays than they were last Saturday.
Exploit the Middle
Tennessee has enough talent to fix some things on the back end when it gets secondary coach Willie Martinez back from a suspension and Todd Kelly Jr. back from illness this week.
The interior of the defense may be a bigger concern.
While there were glimmers of positive things against Bowling Green, UT remains extremely young and inexperienced up the middle.
Only Danny O'Brien and Owen Williams are veterans at defensive tackle. At middle linebacker, sophomore walk-on Colton Jumper lined UT up properly but struggled at times from a physicality standpoint, and while Darrin Kirkland Jr. made a dynamic play, he isn't as experienced calling plays.
Oklahoma must improve drastically at offensive line from the first week, but the Sooners have powerhouse running back Samaje Perine and a guy who can kick it up a gear in Joe Mixon. If they win the point of attack, it could be a big day running for OU.
Stop the Train
The name of Tennessee's game on offense is tempo, tempo, tempo.
That worked to perfection against BGSU as the Vols' eight touchdown drives lasted an average of 1 minute, 52 seconds. That's ridiculous, and according to quarterback Joshua Dobbs, UT can play faster.
"I keep yelling at the ref to let us play faster, but that's his decision. But I'm trying," he told GoVols247's Wes Rucker.
The flip side of a fast offense is if you hold them to three-and-out, the defense gets very little break. Oklahoma has the horses on that side of the ball to stuff UT and keep the Vols from sustaining drives and scoring points.
If they do, the "sonic"-paced offense (via Seth Stokes of the Swain Event) can backfire.
Tennessee Players to Watch
The reason to watch UT's junior quarterback in the first game was to see if he looked sharp running and passing.
He did, and now it's time to see if he can produce against a quality opponent.
Without question, beating Oklahoma would be Dobbs' biggest conquest as a starting quarterback. Can he make the plays when plays are breaking down and defenders are pursuing him? Can he move the pocket and throw the ball downfield when he has to? Can he move the chains against a quality defense?
These are things he hasn't had the opportunities to do much of in his career. If he's really the star a lot of national media makes him out to be, now's his stage to shine.
After so much hype surrounded the sophomore cornerback throughout the spring and a preseason where he looked sharp, Moseley really struggled against Bowling Green.
Two consecutive plays where Gehrig Dieter burned him (the last of which was a touchdown) really magnified the issues he had in man coverage.
Moseley is fast, and he has a developing body that should someday be NFL-ready. But he needs to be better at the point of attack and not get beaten deep. He wasn't the only UT player who had a rough time in the secondary against Bowling Green, but he may have been the biggest disappointment.
The Greensboro, North Carolina, native is expected to be better than that, and he'll see better days. This week better be one of them.
Todd Kelly Jr.
Tennessee was trying to get by last Saturday without having to play sophomore safety Kelly Jr., who'd been in the hospital until late in the week due to an infection after a tonsillectomy.
The Vols weren't able to do that.
With Bowling Green firing darts and hanging close, UT inserted Kelly into the back end of its defense. The Falcons scored just once afterward.
Paraphrasing coach Butch Jones at his weekly press conference, VolQuest.com tweeted that Jones said of Kelly: "Todd Kelly brings a calming effect to our secondary. TK is a problem solver. You could see the defense have a calmness about them w/him."
Kelly has to help calm regarding the concerns this week. With a veteran such as him back in there, it can go a long way in solving the communications issues Jones noted were prevalent in Week 1, per the Rocky Top Insider.
Oklahoma Players to Watch
Playing against what was a quality MAC defense a season ago, the 6'1", 209-pound junior signal-caller had no problem against Akron, torching the Zips and proving he may be the perfect quarterback for Lincoln Riley's Air Raid.
Even though the Vols struggled, they'll provide a tougher test this week.
Mayfield wound up 23-of-33 for 388 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another one in the rout. He distributed the ball around to a lot of players and looked sharp.
If Riley remains pass-happy, as he was a week ago, the burden will fall on Mayfield to remain sharp. If he does, Oklahoma will roll.
"I thought Baker was excellent in how he handled the football, decisions and those kinds of things," OU head coach Bob Stoops said, according to the Express-Star's Adam Troxtell. "I'm sure it'll give him more confidence. It's positive, of course, just getting out there, playing well and getting the feel of it again."
Tennessee sophomore center Coleman Thomas still probably sees the 6'0", 222-pound Oklahoma pass-rushing specialist in his nightmares after last season.
Starting at right tackle as a true freshman, Thomas was a step slow against Striker, who wound up with six tackles, including two for a loss and three hurries on quarterback Justin Worley in the Sooners' win.
Thomas wasn't the only lineman who struggled against Striker, who wound up on Phil Steele's third-team All-American list with 68 tackles, including 17 for a loss and nine sacks to go along with two fumble recoveries.
The continued goodwill surrounding UT's offensive line must continue with slowing Striker. The Vols need to give Joshua Dobbs time to throw, and that means keeping the talented speed-rusher from breathing down his neck.
Back on the field in the wake of a troubled season, the former 5-star running back from Oakley, California, finally saw his first collegiate action this past Saturday.
He did not disappoint.
Despite only rushing five times for 27 yards, Mixon was the team's leading receiver, thanks to taking a Mayfield pass and scampering 76 yards for a touchdown. He wound up with three grabs for 115 yards and the score.
Mixon has next-level talent and searing speed that can really cause UT fits on the second level. After all the big plays allowed against Bowling Green, the Vols must account for Sterling Shepard as well as the star newcomer at running back.
What They're Saying
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops maybe poked the sleeping bear that is the Big Orange Nation with his ho-hum comments about the potential atmosphere in Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
If Vols fans see this (and they will), that's going to be bulletin-board material for the whole fanbase.
According to Stoops at his weekly press conference (via Rocky Top Insider's Houston Kress):
Come on, we’ve had Notre Dame and Florida State prior to that. We’ve been on this stage before. We’ll have the music blaring in the stadium this week for every road game this season. It shouldn’t be any different. It’s exciting but exciting things happen in any stadium across the country. In the end, we’ll be on the field like every other game ready to go.
All of those guys have played in big games on the road. We go on the road all the time. I have a hard time understanding all the questions about a stadium. When we go somewhere, it’s usually not half full.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield chimed in, too, per Oklahoma's official Twitter account: "We're still playing football. Big crowd…doesn't matter. We just need to play our game."
Stoops' comments stirred up such a frenzy from UT fans on social media, ESPN.com's Travis Haney (and others) began tweeting about it.
Said Haney: "Re: OU-UT atmosphere. Neyland will be bonkers Saturday, but I was at FSU game in 2011 and it was every bit as loud as ANYWHERE I've been. That said, those OU players aren't these OU players. Roster has turned over. So I don't know that they've seen anything like this."
Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara is known for his speed, and he hit the edge several times against Bowling Green, beating Falcons to the perimeter.
But on his 56-yard scoring run in the second half, Kamara was nearly tripped up as a BGSU defender lunged out and grabbed his lower body. When asked about getting caught from behind, Kamara said with a smile: "I scored."
He may have pulled up a little because he was admiring himself on Nissan Stadium's Jumbotron. He told the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak: "The new Nike uniforms are kind of pretty," Kamara said. "I was checking them out."
All offseason, this is one of the games I expected Tennessee to lose.
Given Oklahoma's offensive balance of skill-position stars at receiver and quarterback, Baker Mayfield, along with running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, the Sooners looked like a difficult opponent.
Then, the Vols went out in the first game and struggled defensively, adding a little more uncertainty to their ability to pull off a game of this magnitude.
Tennessee's inexperience has to be a major detractor against the Sooners, right? So, why do I all of a sudden think Tennessee wins this game?
In spite of the ugliness of the Bowling Green game, it was a necessary wake-up call.
The Vols got up 21-3 and thought they were going to steamroll, the Falcons used a gutsy 4th-and-4 conversion inside their own 20-yard line as a catalyst to a touchdown drive and began thinking they could win.
Though things were dicey well into the second half, Tennessee got Todd Kelly Jr. back, settled down, and still won by 29 points. They allowed just three points in the final 26 minutes with Kelly anchoring the secondary.
Even through the hard times, Tennessee won home openers (20 in a row), and Neyland Stadium is going to be absolutely rocking Saturday night. The Vols will feed off that.
It isn't all aesthetics, either. UT should have an all-systems-go with receiver Marquez North, cornerback Justin Martin and defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, who should play more expanded roles after they were limited in Week 1.
Add those to Kelly and the return of defensive backs coach Willie Martinez to the skybox after a one-game suspension and you can't underestimate how vital those improvements could be.
Logic suggests OU is going to escape Knoxville with a win, but the jury's still out on both of these teams at this early juncture. UT's offense looked dynamic in the first week, and there were enough reasons to believe it wasn't just the competition.
The guess here is that Tennessee's opening-game struggles were a bucket of ice water to the face, and the Vols will be a different team Saturday. If that happens and they feed off the Neyland crowd, watch out.
Prediction: Vols 31, Oklahoma 27
All stats gathered from UTSports.com unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports.com, unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.