TENNESSEE (2-0) AT NO. 4 OKLAHOMA (2-0)
8:14 p.m. * Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadiu, Norman, Okla. * WTVC/106.5 FM
Alabama's level of interest in the Sugar Bowl in January may be up for debate, but what Oklahoma's defensive front did to the Crimson Tide is cut and dry. In the 45-31 win, the Sooners sacked Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron seven times and forced five turnovers.
Defensive linemen Chuka Ndulue and Charles Tapper, linebackers Eric Striker, Geneo Grissom and Dominique Alexander, cornerbacks Zack Sanchez and Julian Wilson, safety Quentin Hayes - they're all back. Jordan Phillips, a 6-foot-6, 334-pound defensive tackle, is back from injury.
Tennessee's passing game has been the strength of its offense through two games, but for quarterback Justin Worley and his receivers to keep it up, it'll be up to the Vols' offensive line, which likely will include an all-true freshman right side with Jashon Robertson and Coleman Thomas, to handle Oklahoma at the point of attack.
"We can't just depend on Worley, even though he's having a great time," tackle Kyler Kerbyson said. We can't just depend on him to win us the game. We've got to win up front."
ONE TO WATCH
To pull off the upset of the vaunted Sooners, the Vols will need any number of players to have big games, and though Jalen Hurd is only a freshman, the Tennessee tailback is one of those players. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound followed up his debut, which included an impressive 15-yard touchdown catch-and-run, with a more workmanlike second game.
Against Arkansas State, Hurd grinded out 83 yards on 23 carries and scored the first rushing touchdown of his career. He again will handle a larger load than Marlin Lane if he earns it, and Tennessee will throw the ball to him as well. Neither Louisiana Tech nor Tulsa cracked 100 rushing yards against Oklahoma, and Tennessee will need to run it better than it did in its first two games to have a chance. Hurd will have a hand in that, too.
"It's what I'm dreaming of," he said, "and our team's working hard every day just looking forward to this game."
IN THE END
This will be one of those reality-check games for Tennessee, and the Vols will know how close their program is to being able to compete with the national elite come Sunday morning. When Tennessee went out to play at second-ranked Oregon in its third game of the season in 2013, the Vols' lack of speed defensively and dearth of offensive playmakers were painfully obvious in the 59-14 rout.
Coach Butch Jones and his staff have improved Tennessee in those areas, but the Vols' weaknesses are along the line of scrimmage, where Oklahoma's strengths lie. Nearly half of Tennessee's travel roster will play in its first road game against a top-five opponent, and while it's unknown how they'll handle it, that typically isn't a good formula for an upset.
Prediction: OKLAHOMA 41, TENNESSEE 17
KNOXVILLE - So much for finding a comfort level.
Just as Tennessee's many freshmen and other unproven commodities began settling into their roles for the Volunteers, they hopped on a plane Friday and flew out to their first road game.
And it just so happens to be against the No. 4 team in the country -- a program that's lost only five times at home since 1998.
"Honestly, it probably will feel pretty uncomfortable at first," Tennessee freshman receiver Josh Malone said. "Oklahoma has a very hostile environment in their stadium. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to go out there and get better, play a great game and go to war with my teammates."
For nearly half of Tennessee's travel roster, tonight's visit to Oklahoma will be the first road experience of their college careers, and that doesn't count the players who have had only minimal plays in garbage time in previous road games.
There's a degree of unknown with such youth, and many of the first- and second-year players probably are unaware of the Vols' recent woes on the road. Tennessee has a 19-game road losing streak to ranked teams that dates back to 2006.
"We haven't really been looking back in the past that much," center Mack Crowder said. "Right now, we're looking at Oklahoma and we're saying, 'Yeah, we can win this game.' That's our mindset going into every single game, so 3-0 is definitely our goal, and right now we don't see it [as] too far-fetched."
Tennessee is a 21-point underdog against the Sooners a year after being a four-touchdown underdog at second-ranked Oregon, and much like that game, only the most positive of optimists outside the program believe the Vols can pull the upset.
For Tennessee coach Butch Jones, the Oklahoma game will be another measuring stick, a checkpoint of how far his program has come in nearly two years under his control.
Earlier this week, Jones pointed to Oklahoma, which is in its 16th year under Bob Stoops, as an example of a model program he's trying to emulate, and he admitted Tennessee remains in the "infant stages" of its development.
"Great teams have their own style of play that is unique to them," Jones said. "We haven't developed a uniqueness yet that is only common to Tennessee football right now. Everywhere that we've been that uniqueness has been effort, it's been toughness, it's been strain and it's been fundamentals and fine details of what it takes to play to winning football.
"We are getting there, but we are nowhere where we need to be. I see us making progress, and it's extremely hard because you're in an instant-gratification society. I want it as fast and right now as much as anybody. It drives me every day, but there are some things, it takes time.
"We are going through the process of building this football team right now."
Needless to say, beating Oklahoma would expedite the process, while another beating like the Vols took in Eugene last September could be significant on the psyche of an impressionable young team.
"It probably shouldn't be, because we are Tennessee and we should be used to winning," said Crowder, a Tennessee native. "I think beating a team like Oklahoma will probably just put us back on track and give us a little bit more confidence."
After the season-opening win against Utah State, Jones said this team expects to win more, and he elaborated on that during the SEC coaches' teleconference Wednesday.
"It's having a great week of preparation [and] them understanding they're creating habits every time they step on the football field," he said. "You're earning the right to win, and there's a difference between believing you're going to win, earning the right to win and hoping to win. And we've hoped to win too much around here in the past."
The hope should get tested early and often in Norman tonight by an Oklahoma team that appears to be devoid of many weaknesses. The Sooners boast a massive offensive line full of seasoned veterans, big-play makers in receiver Sterling Shepard and tailbacks Keith Ford and Alex Ross and a quarterback, Trevor Knight, who makes it all go.
Defensively, Oklahoma is experienced and athletic.
It's where Tennessee is trying to get, and Jones and the Vols will know how far they have to go after tonight's game.
"We've got to be on our A-game," quarterback Justin Worley said. "They're a really good football team. They're not unbeatable, but we're going to have to be pretty on top of our game."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.