Week 3: Tennessee at Oklahoma

Tennessee (2-0) at Oklahoma (2-0) Sept. 13, 8:00, ABC 

Here’s The Deal: This is just the third meeting between the two historically giant programs and it’s the first time in the regular season, with Tennessee winning the 1939 Orange Bowl 17-0 and Oklahoma winning the 1968 Orange 26-24. For the modern era and to this season, this represents a big opportunity for noted SEC-basher Bob Stoops and Oklahoma to show that the big win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl wasn’t a fluke, and it’s a great chance to solidify a spot on the fast track into the College Football Playoff – this is the non-conference win the Big 12 is looking for. 

The Sooners started off as well as they could possibly ask for, blowing away Louisiana Tech and Tulsa to ease their way into the season, but now comes the tough part. All of a sudden, Tennessee is actually good, and with four of the next five games away from Norman, including three in a row against West Virginia, TCU and Texas to kick off the Big 12 season, it’ll be a fight to get into November without losing focus, even if OU will be favored in every game. 

The offense is humming, the defense is solid, and there hasn’t been any slowing down since the win over the Tide. But now comes a real test to show exactly where the team is at. If it has the old Oklahoma swagger back, this is a home game that could define the national attitude towards the team the rest of the way. And if the Vols first two games were any indication, this might be the Sooners’ toughest game the rest of the year. 

Tennessee didn’t roll past Arkansas State, but it had few problems getting up big in the second half and coasting the rest of the way. Blowing away Utah State might not seem like a big deal, but considering all of the turnover and with such a young team back, it was a dominant effort. With the SEC season starting at Georgia next week, there’s a chance Tennessee is dealing with back-to-back College Football Playoff teams on the road before getting three of its next four games at home. For a team and a program still rebuilding, the next two weeks should be an interesting measuring stick. Win one of the two, and all of a sudden this becomes one of the nation’s hot teams with a slew of big games ahead against Ole Miss, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina. 

Why Tennessee Might Win: The Vols aren’t beating themselves. Mistakes are always a big worry for a team with so much turnover and so many questions marks, but Tennessee isn’t giving anyone much of a break do far with just eight penalties in the first two games and just one turnover. Oklahoma isn’t screwing up, either, but on the road in front of a hostile crowd, as long as Tennessee is breaking even in the error department, it might be okay. Defensively, the Vols are fast enough to hang with the speed of Oklahoma’s skill players. The Sooner offense is working with Trevor Knight being able to take off when needed and getting plenty of time to operate, but the Tennessee pass rush has been terrific so far. The D already dealt with one mobile, savvy quarterback in Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton. Now it’s Round 2.

Why Oklahoma Might Win: Tennessee hasn’t had to worry much about dealing with a pass rush – Utah State and Arkansas State weren’t able to do much to get to Justin Worley. The Vol veteran has made the most of his chances, spreading the ball around well and making several big plays, but he’s also been comfortable. Teams that got to him last year forced him to mess up, and now he has to deal with a faster, more talented defensive back seven than he has seen so far. This week, he and the Tennessee offense have to rely on the ground game a bit more, but that could be a problem against a Sooner defense that hasn’t given up a thing, allowing just 148 rushing yards, 2.35 yards per carry, and no touchdowns in the first two games. 

Who To Watch Out For: Defensively, it’s all about the linebackers for both teams. Oklahoma’s to five tacklers are all linebackers, with senior Caleb Gastelum leading the way and Dominique Alexander and Eric Striker turning in terrific starts to the season. The Sooners come from all angles, with Gastelum tying for the team lead with two tackles for loss to go along with his 11 tackles and a sack. Tennessee’s linebackers take a backseat to no one, with A.J. Johnson looking like an All-American again with 18 stops in his first two games, while Jalen Reeves-Maybin has been fantastic, making 16 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss. Don’t expect either team’s offense to do much to get to the second level. 
What’s Going To Happen: This could be a bit more defensive than it might appear. Both front sevens have been outstanding so far, and neither team’s running game will do much. Knight will make a few mistakes, but Worley will make more as the Tennessee offense bogs down a bit too often in the second half. It won’t be a dominant performance for OU, but it’ll get the job done. 
Prediction: Oklahoma 34 … Tennessee 17 
Line: Oklahoma -20.5 o/u: 54.5 
Must Watch Factor: (5: The Drop – 1: 19 Kids and Counting) … 4