Oklahoma has been a model of consistency over the past 15 years, helping to set the standard for what a perennial national championship contender should look like. On Saturday, the Sooners will face a program that was once in those same shoes, Tennessee.
It's the first marquee game for both teams this year and a national audience will be tuned in to see if the Sooners are as good as their ranking says and if the Volunteers are on the way to becoming the program that dominated the 1990s and was very good in the 2000s.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones has done a good job building up the program's talent level and depth over the past two years. His recruiting shows the Vols will soon be back among the national elite when it comes to talent, but there is still a ways to go before that talent translates to on-field success.
Once upon a time, Bob Stoops was in the same boat, finding a downtrodden and outcast program when he arrived in Norman.
“It's still fresh on my mind, how shockingly down our program was when I walked in from the feel of the players and their confidence and their attitude and the vibe around the team and the community and around the school and how negatively we were looked upon,” Stoops said. “We weren't looked upon as winners. We were looked upon in the other way as losers. It shocked me.”
Even though Stoops produced a national championship in just his second season, the process wasn't easy and there was a lot of change that had to be implemented. The biggest change was altering the mindset of the players already on the roster that had suffered through losing seasons and low expectations.
“The expectations of what we were going to be like and building the players up to patting them on the rear end and put your arm around them and tell them they could do this and that they were capable,” Stoops said. “I think they were told a lot from everybody that they weren't capable for whatever reasons. It was trying to get that mindset right. That was the biggest challenge. Little by little it started to change and the expectations started to change.”
During his press conference on Monday, Jones said many of the same things Stoops said he found upon arriving at OU. Stoops has now gone from a beaten down program to one Jones is modeling his rebuilding job after.
"You look at illustrations throughout the course of the country of programs that have really been built on a foundation, a foundational value and have been around for a very long number of years," Jones said. "You win with consistency and continuity. Consistent messaging, the players know what they're getting every day. There's a comfort level from a recruiting aspect that you know the coaches are going to be in place.
“It's a whole great big conglomeration of everything that goes into it, and I think Oklahoma's one of the models. Coach Stoops has done a tremendous job and that was a program that had so much tradition, and it does, but they were down a little bit and he came in and got it back going the right way."
Tennessee isn't back to that level yet, but they're on the right track. Who knows how long it will take until the Vols are competing for SEC and national championships again, but they could do much worse than following the rebuilding example set by Stoops and company.
Saturday, these two teams will clash on the field. One was irrelevant at the height of the other's dominance. One rose to power while the other faded into irrelevance. Now, one is among the best of the best and the other is following in its footsteps, trying to climb the ladder again.
Three questions for Oklahoma
1. Can the Sooners take advantage of the edge in the trenches?
Tennessee has a lot of talent, but very little of it is in the trenches. At least, the talent that is there has not been developed yet. The Sooners have a massive (literally) advantage along the offensive line against Tennessee's defensive line and will need to use that in order to pound the Vols with the run. Doing that will also help Trevor Knight have an easier time against a Tennessee back seven that is the strongest part of the defense. On defense, the Sooners defensive line could have a field day against the Tennessee offensive line. The Vols average just 3.3 yards per rush and have given up four sacks in two games—not good when your opponents were Utah State and Arkansas State. If OU can dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, this game could be really ugly.
2. Can the Sooners contain the Tennessee skill position players?
While the Vols may be somewhat lacking up front, they have plenty of talent on offense surrounding quarterback Justin Worley, particularly at wide receiver. Von Pearson, arguably the best of the group, is out with a high ankle sprain but the cupboard is far from bare. The Sooners will have their hands full on the outside, particularly with the 6-foot-4 Marquez North. It's a good thing cornerback Zach Sanchez will be able to play after sustaining a shoulder injury against Tulsa last week, because this would not be a good time for a trial by fire outing for freshman Jordan Thomas and sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin. Then again, if the Sooners are able to consistently pressure Justin Worley, it may not matter if Tennessee has great skill players.
3. Will the Sooners be too fired up?
Everything is there for the Sooners: a night game in front of a fired up home crowd and a national television audience against a storied SEC program. Not to mention, one of the biggest recruiting visit games OU has had in quite some time. There's no doubt Oklahoma will be fired up to prove itself, but will the emotion cause them to play poorly? The true sign of a mature team capable of winning a championship is how it handles the moment. You never want to get too high or too low, but instead, play with an even keel throughout. So far, OU has been very business-like this year. Let's see if that continues on Saturday.
Three players to watch for Tennessee
1. Quarterback Justin Worley- 49-76-1, 64.5% completion, 520 yards, 5 touchdowns
Worley has had an interesting career, but it seems he is finally putting all the pieces together. Worley has been blessed with all the physical tools, but injuries and inconsistent play have plagued his four-year career in Knoxville. Now, the improvements he has made over the years are finally showing up on the field. Butch Jones says Worley is a completely different player from a year ago and the Sooners have been very complimentary of what they've seen on film.
2. Receiver Pig Howard- nine catches, 67 yards
Marquez North is the bigger target, but Howard is possibly more reliable. He's got great hands to go with great speed. Tennessee can use him in a variety of ways on offense, so the Sooners will have to keep track of him at all times. Howard isn't the biggest at just 5-foot-8, but he plays much bigger than his size.
3. Linebacker A.J. Johnson- 18 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 pass break ups
Johnson is the leader of the Tennessee defense and has led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons. He was an All-SEC first team member a year ago and looks good once again this season after being named to a laundry list of preseason teams and watch lists. Johnson has the athleticism to disrupt the passing game as well as the size to play close to the line of scrimmage and snuff out the OU run game. He will be a handful to deal with.
Key matchup: Oklahoma secondary vs. Tennessee wide receivers
As mentioned above, the Vols have a terrific group of wide receivers, despite their youth and overall inexperience. Losing Pearson hurts, but there are plenty of other targets for the Sooners to contend with. The Sooners can make this an easy battle by pressuring Worley into poor decisions and bad throws. But if Worley has time to deliver the ball, the Sooners better be good in coverage.
Prediction: Oklahoma 45, Tennessee 17
It's not even as close as the score indicates. The Sooners start fast as the young Volunteers aren't sure what hit them. Oklahoma controls the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and harasses Justin Worley all night. The striped-out stadium is at a feverish pitch all night.