By Kenny Howell
The Butch Jones era is off to a wonderful start in Knoxville. He currently has one of the top recruiting classes in the country and a 2-0 record. Everything has been smooth sailing for Jones since arriving in Knoxville nine months ago. That is about to change. The Vols are just a day away from facing the nation’s second ranked team 2,600 miles away from home. So what can the Vols expect tomorrow? I’m going to break it down position by position and let you know who I believe has the advantage at each position, and how I expect the game to go.
Quarterback: Oregon – This one isn’t close. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is averaging 26 yards per carry through two games this year. He hasn’t thrown the ball exceptionally well, but he threw 32 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions a year ago. If he needs to, he can throw the ball just fine. Tennessee’s Justin Worley is a first year starter. In the team’s first two games of the year, his numbers haven’t been bad but he hasn’t LOOKED very good. He has made some poor throws that he got away with because of the opponent. He will have to be much better this week if Tennessee wants to have a chance to pull the upset.
Running Back: Oregon – Again, not close. Oregon’s DeAnthony Thomas is probably the fastest player in the country, and will be an absolute handful for Tennessee tomorrow afternoon. It doesn’t end there, though. Byron Marshall can also hit the home run at any time, and expect Freshman Thomas Tyner to get more carries this week at well. Tennessee’s running game will primarily feature Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane. Both have had good seasons thus far. The running game for Tennessee isn’t bad at all, but everyone’s looks pretty bad compared to Oregon’s.
Wide Receiver: Oregon – This one goes to Oregon as well. Oregon’s receivers don’t get a lot of recognition, but they are among the best down field blockers I’ve ever seen, and certainly the best blocking receiving core in the country. Josh Low is very capable of hitting the home run, though. Tennessee’s receiving core is very talented, but very inexperienced. This game will be a huge measuring stick for them, especially with injuries to Devrin Young and Alton (Pig) Howard.
Offensive Line: Tennessee – It’s hard to compare the offensive lines of these two teams because they play so differently, and they couldn’t be more different offensive lines. Tennessee might have the best offensive line in the country, though, so I’ll give them the edge. The Vols will need to rally behind the big boys up front, and try to control some clock while they try to shock the nation in Eugene.
Defensive Line: Tennessee – I give Tennessee a slight edge on the defensive line as well. Their line has been surprisingly good thus far this season, and I think they can play well against Oregon as well. The loss of Mo Couch to suspension will hurt a bit, as he was their first to rotate in, but they get Jacques Smith back from injury on the edge. They’ve been good against the run, particularly up the middle. However, they will need to generate more of a pass rush this week in order to force Oregon in to some long yardage situations and get them off the field. Oregon’s line generates a good pass rush. Senior Taylor Hart is coming off an 8 sack season, and Tony Washington already has 2.5 this year. However, Oregon will likely have a tough time getting to Justin Worley as they deal with Tennessee’s line that led the nation in sacks per drop back last year.
Linebackers: EVEN – Tennessee’s AJ Johnson is the best linebacker on either side, but after that it gets a bit murky. If fully healthy, I would probably give Tennessee a slight edge but with Curt Maggitt injured for Tennessee, the linebacker cores look pretty even. Oregon lost its top three tacklers from a year ago, and Tennessee doesn’t have a lot of experience beyond Johnson. Both linebacker cores have a lot of potential but also have a lot to prove.
Secondary: Oregon – Oregon’s secondary is as fast, and as good as it gets. They can take players out of the passing game, and are also great at making open field tackles. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is their best cover corner, and will likely have the assignment of covering Tennessee Freshman Marquez North. The Vols secondary will likely have problems tackling, and covering Oregon as they try to keep up with the Ducks’ speed.
Special Teams: Oregon – DeAnthony Thomas can score any time he touches the ball, including on punts and kickoffs. Tennessee will be without its’ top return man, Devrin Young. The Vols have the less talented Special teams, but they will have to win the special teams game in order to have any chance of winning the game. They have to own field position, and that starts with Michael Palardy, who has been much better kicking and punting thus far this year.
Tennessee comes into the game as 27.5 point underdogs, the second highest in the school’s history (2008 Florida). When these two teams played in 2010, Tennessee jumped out to a 13-3 lead before Oregon scored 45 straight points to win in a 48-13 landslide. If Tennessee can run the ball and get out to an early lead again, I think they are much more equipped to keep it close this time around. They are much more disciplined, and much more capable of creating turnovers and keeping this thing close. However, I think eventually, whether it be in the third quarter, fourth quarter, or whenever, I think Oregon pulls away and wins pretty comfortably.