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What Tennessee Needs to Beat Oklahoma

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Even a narrow path is still a path to victory for the Vols. Can they find it?

So, Justin: how's your deep ball?
So, Justin: how's your deep ball?
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma is every bit the stable juggernaut Tennessee would like to be. They're talented, they're deep, and according to F +/-, they've been basically the same team five years running (image courtesy of the one and only Bill Connelly):

After the last few years, Oklahoma's stability (and the occasionally-hilarious "is Bob Stoops on the hot seat?" discussions that pop up every 18 months or so) would be a happy trade for most Tennessee fans. With this game being in Norman the chances of a Tennessee victory are realistically somewhere between slim and Dooley-against-the-inevitable-disappointment. It's not going to take a miracle to beat the Sooners, but I wouldn't mind the help.

If you haven't figured out the theme for the Wednesday morning previews yet, what we do is this: we try and find comparable teams our opponents have played against over the last couple of years given what we know about our opponent's strengths. It's a nice idea as long as the opponent helps out.

Oklahoma doesn't help out. The Sooners ran this weird 1980s-Barry Switzer-esque offense late last year when things went sideways, then half the skill position players left, so how much of that can you use? The OU secondary is in large parts new, so how much do you go back to previous years? Trevor Knight isn't Blake Bell; does that matter? (hint: yes, it does.)

Also, OU hasn't played anybody of note yet this year. This makes our lives a little more difficult since we can't really use 2014 data as a strong indicator for what Tennessee can do-in most cases.

OKLAHOMA'S FRONT SEVEN IS THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES

Unfortunately, OU returns nearly their entire front seven and they're going against Tennessee's offensive line. Eep. Last year's run defense was impressive: 4.1 YPC allowed in total, but only Notre Dame, West Virginia, and Kansas State even broke 5 YPC on average. (UL-Monroe, TCU, and Kansas State couldn't crack 2 YPC. That's disgusting.)

OU's front seven has done exactly what you'd expect this year: 2.15 yards per carry allowed, and I don't have opposing opportunity rates yet, but I'm guessing it's better than 36.2%. (Refresher: that's the percentage of runs that go greater than five yards from scrimmage.) Facing that front seven will be a Tennessee offensive line that didn't break 4 YPC against either Utah State or Arkansas State. It's safe to say the interior run game won't be a huge part of Tennessee's path to success unless they've been playing long-form possum to open the season. If so: well played.

How could they be successful? Move laterally (we'll talk about this more in a minute), try and preserve numbers advantages when you get them, and put the line in positions where they don't always need to hold their blocks 3-4 seconds. Marlin Lane should be serviceable here, and there's a chance Jalen Hurd will just decide to go off, but pickings are slim.

TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: 4.0 YPC or more, he wrote hopefully.

TENNESSEE FAILS IF: 2.5 YPC or less.

THE PREDICTION: 2.1 YPC. Yeah, I'm not optimistic.

WHO IS TREVOR KNIGHT?

It's not quite a fait accompli that Knight is statue pocket passer 2.0; the guy can run and did somewhat last year. (This year? Yeah, same deal, about 4-5 carries a game with one sack thrown in there, good for about 5-6 yards a pop. Just don't let him break contain.) He might have an arm? Again, tough to tell; his 2013 numbers were mediocre at 59% completion, 6.1 YPA, and 4 TD to 5 INT in games played. Of course, Oklahoma's passing game was less offense and more modern art for most of 2013, which is what happens when only four games resulted in more than 20 OU completions.

This is the part where we mention his 32-44, 7.9 YPA, 4 TD, 1 INT closing performance against Alabama. This is also the part where we mention his 2014 numbers - 59%, 8.1(!) YPA, 3 TD, 1 INT - look more like the Alabama game than the struggle that preceded it.

The relative unknowns going into the year are in the good-but-hey-look-at-that-schedule territory; Sterling Shepard is definitely WR1 (18.6 yards per catch), Durron Neal is likely WR2 (14.0 yards per catch), and Keith Ford and Alex Ross are splitting carries to the combined tune of 7.5 YPC. Are they talented? Sure. Are they better than anyone Tennessee's faced so far this year at their respective positions? Yup, more than likely (I think J.D. McKissic is the only guy I'd even float in this argument, and he's a unique player who might - might - beat Neal, to give you an idea).

I trust the defensive line more than the offensive line, but this is going to be a tough path regardless, and if the Vols key on the running game too much, Knight will kill them with his arm.

TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: 6.3 YPA or less.

TENNESSEE FAILS IF: 8.0 YPA or more.

THE PREDICTION: 7.5 YPA. Hopefully that doesn't come at the expense of the front seven; the Tennessee secondary should be able to hang in this game at least, although I wonder what'll happen if the OU run game gets going. Let's split the difference?

TENNESSEE'S TALENT ADVANTAGE?

Okay, so the only way Tennessee is walking out of Norman with a win is if the WR corps have the game of their lives and Mike Bajakian just uses the crap out of them.

You know, metaphorically speaking. But broadly, this looks like a lot of short/quick screens to the outside, get a few yards, poke over the heads of the safeties when they cheat up, rinse, lather, repeat. They have the athletes to do this even with Von Pearson's absence. The better question: who among the WR corps can block? I'd guess Josh Malone's lack of early PT has as much to do with this as Pearson's early emergence, but if he wants a starting gig, this would be a great time to seize it. (Provided he can pry it from Josh Smith, who ....what? Dude. Way to be.)

And yes, this team will need Pig Howard to block and pick up some dirty yards on the outside. Keep the chains moving, accept that Justin Worley's YPA will take a hit if this is successful, but if it takes swing passes to get the ball in the hands of playmakers, we'll deal.

Of course, if the Vols have been playing possum and they're just running four verts all game long, I won't complain at all.

TENNESSEE SUCCEEDS IF: Worley breaks 7.0 YPA with the short passing game featuring prominently.

TENNESSEE FAILS IF: Worley falls under 5.5 YPA when OU abandons run defense and sells out against the short passing game, followed by Worley not being able to beat them over the top.

THE PREDICTION: 5.8 YPA, but in fits in starts. A couple of drives should go well, but consistent success is a much tougher ask.

THE SCORE PREDICTION

37-10 Oklahoma, but something like 14-7 at the half. The optics here are just ugly, especially in the trenches, for me to think Tennessee has much of a chance unless we get a repeat of the Western Kentucky game by Trevor Knight.

Is there another path? Am I missing something? Let me know.