Ladies and gentleman, it is Oklahoma week.
After a 59-30 win against Bowling Green in the season opener in Nashville, the Volunteers look ahead to Saturday, September 12, when they host the No. 19 Oklahoma Sooners at Neyland Stadium.
But despite the 29 point advantage on the scoreboard against the Falcons, the Vols still have improvements to make before the Boomer Sooner arrives in Knoxville.
The Volunteers’ offense enjoyed a nearly flawless performance, rushing for a total of 399 yards and 6 touchdowns, with quarterback Josh Dobbs adding 205 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
But giving up 424 yards from Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson definitely makes the defense, more specifically the secondary, a bit of a concern heading into Oklahoma week.
The Volunteers’ defensive backfield definitely felt the loss of starters LaDarrell McNeil and Rashaan Gaulden, and also contributor Todd Kelly Jr. Head coach Butch Jones attributed some of the struggles to the absence of secondary coach Willie Martinez, who was suspended for the game just prior to kickoff due to NCAA violations.
“It has an impact from the communications standpoint,” said Jones.
“Coach Martinez brings so much from the box. Not having him available, I think that hurt us.”
If those problems are not solved by Saturday, the Volunteers could be looking at a similar attack from Oklahoma.
In his debut for the Sooners, Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield lit it up in Norman, throwing for 388 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-3 win against Akron on Saturday. While the Zips of Akron, Ohio aren’t exactly up to the quality of an SEC defense, Mayfield and the Sooners’ new-look Air Raid offense can cause trouble for the Vols.
But just a year out from traveling to Oklahoma as heavy underdogs, the Volunteers have a much higher level of confidence and experience as they prepare to host the Sooners in their home opener.
Last season, the Sooners beat the Volunteers 34-10 in a game where their vaunted pass rush dominated Tennessee’s inexperienced offensive line. Oklahoma’s defense sacked Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley a total of five times, forced a fumble and picked off two passes.
However, since week 3 of the 2014 season, two things have changed.
One, Josh Dobbs is at quarterback. Two, Tennessee’s offensive line has a full season, a full offseason and a successful week one performance under their belt.
Against Bowling Green, the offensive line only gave up one sack and led the push for an offensive performance of over 600 yards. With a mobile quarterback like Dobbs under center and two of the most talented running backs in the SEC, the offensive line’s load is much lighter than the one they carried for the majority of last season.
The plethora of talent and increased experience the Volunteers have on both sides of the ball should make for a much more competitive matchup this time.
The Sooners and Volunteers both enter this game ranked in the top 25. For Oklahoma, this is familiar territory. But for the Volunteers, this is the first time they have been ranked since September 2012. The 59-30 win against Bowling Green was the first win as a ranked team since New Year’s Day in 2008 at the Outback Bowl.
The Vols may be in unfamiliar territory with sky-high expectations, but Jones’ team is staying grounded for their most hyped home opener in recent memory.
“We need to get better in a hurry,” said Jones.
“Oklahoma might be the most underrated team in the country. We all know what’s coming to Knoxville.”
The game is already a sell-out. Neyland Stadium will be at max capacity with 102,455 people in attendance.
The Oklahoma game has been dubbed the “Checker Neyland” game of the 2015 season, a repeat of last year’s Florida game where each section is assigned either orange or white to form a checkerboard across the stands of Neyland Stadium.
With loads of attention in the national spotlight, the Volunteers will kick off play in Knoxville with the entire nation watching.
Both teams look to duplicate the same production they each had on the offensive side of the ball in week one. The Volunteers and Sooners’ defenses should be on notice following big numbers from both star-studded offenses.
Oklahoma had a much better day on defense on Saturday — allowing only 226 total yards and six complete passes from Akron — but Akron’s offense is nowhere near as explosive as Bowling Green’s, much less Tennessee’s.
The defense that can hold its own enough to create some separation on the scoreboard could be the deciding factor in this one. Look for both defensive fronts to try and create some pressure in the backfield.
If both defenses struggle at all, we could be looking at a shootout in Knoxville.
No. 23 Tennessee takes on No. 19 Oklahoma at 6 p.m. ET at Neyland Stadium. The game will be televised by ESPN.
Featured Image by Ben Moser
Edited by Nathan Odom