Two weeks ago on our podcast our old friend Brad Shepard made a really good statement: for Tennessee, this season is either the beginning of the end of being bad, or the beginning of the beginning of being good.
The transition probably won't be instantaneous and perhaps not even within the same season. But tomorrow night could be our best indicator yet which one we're closest to. Here's #4 Oklahoma, legitimate playoff contender and beater of Bama, a three touchdown favorite over the second winningest program in the history of the SEC. By this point we're almost numb to it; the Sooners are the seventh top five team Tennessee has played in the last four years. What's happened in six of those games is the anesthetic:
- 2011 vs #1 LSU: Down 17-7 at halftime, lost 38-7
- 2011 at #2 Alabama: Tied 6-6 at halftime, lost 37-6
- 2012 at #5 Georgia: Tied 30-30 at halftime, lost 51-44
- 2012 vs #1 Alabama: Down 23-10 at halftime, lost 44-13
- 2013 at #2 Oregon: Down 38-7 at halftime, lost 59-14
- 2013 at #1 Alabama: Down 35-0 at halftime, lost 45-10
Take out the shootout in Athens in Derek Dooley's final season and you've got five losses by an average of 34.6 points. It's what happens when championship-level teams play teams that don't go to bowl games.
So progress, as it specifically relates to Butch Jones' brief time in Knoxville, would technically be staying in this game at halftime. Last year Oregon gave up a 7-0 lead and then eradicated all hope in less than two quarters. Alabama led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter. Both games felt like watching a lower-classification high school team try to beat a really good school with higher enrollment, with futility on both sides of the ball.
Oklahoma, on paper, presents a similar issue: Tennessee's offensive line is brand new and still very much a work in progress, the Vols have run the ball to the tune of 3.3 yards per carry against Utah State and Arkansas State, and the Sooner front seven appears to be a destroyer of worlds. This is not a problem likely to get solved Saturday night.
So maybe Tennessee takes another beating, the Sooners cover, and we go into the bye week and try to figure out how it can get better. It wouldn't be the first time.
But it might be the last time.
The Vols have some clear and significant disadvantages in this game, but there are also a few things Tennessee could reasonably do to make this a game in the second half:
The Best of Justin Worley
There's always noise about what Worley can't do, but if he does what he can do really well, the Vols can move the football. Last year Worley averaged an interception every 24.5 attempts. This year he's thrown one in 76 attempts. Last year Worley completed 55.6% of his passes. This year he's at 64.5%. And while his improvement in yards per attempt has been less dramatic (6.3 to 6.8), the number has still gone up despite the total absence of the deep ball in the first two games.
Overall these are similar numbers to what we saw from Worley last year against Georgia, so asking for them again isn't at all unreasonable. He will have to do it with less time to throw behind a less experienced offensive line, but with more weapons to throw to even with Von Pearson out this week. Oklahoma will take away the run, come after Worley, and try to sit on the short stuff Tennessee wants to throw to get its playmakers in space. The Vols have to successfully entertain something downfield in this one. Some of that will be on Worley, but he's got help in who he's throwing to...
The Best of Marquez North
When Pearson did go down last week, Tennessee got a lot more specific when looking for the big play. As a result Marquez North grabbed a pair of touchdowns and solidified his place as WR1 on a team that's completed passes to a dozen different players in two games.
When Justin Hunter was coming up as a freshmen and a few games as a sophomore, he had the benefit of Tyler Bray throwing him the football. So you saw these staggering numbers like 25.9 yards per reception as a freshman and a touchdown almost every other catch. North isn't exactly Hunter and Worley isn't at all Bray. But if Tennessee is going to compete in this thing, there's a good chance it will come on the shoulders of a breakout game from #8, who makes you feel the way you felt about #11 at this stage of his career.
Helping out here? Oklahoma corner and fellow sophomore Zack Sanchez should play but could be less than 100% coming off a shoulder situation last week against Tulsa. This could open the door even more for North; Crimson and Cream Machine lists North v. Sanchez as the highlight of the game's most important match-up.
Last year the Vols did lots of little things to give themselves a chance to beat South Carolina, and then it was North who made the big play to take Tennessee from possibly to probably. Tennessee will need something special from Marquez in this one again. Watching the Thursday night game on ESPN as I write this I keep seeing promos for the Vols and Sooners, and as was the case for our first two games on the SEC Network, when Tennessee gets promoted the face you see is Butch Jones, because we have no household names on our roster yet. But Marquez North could be that guy, and if he's that guy Saturday night, the Vols could have a chance to do something special.
The Best of the Tennessee Defense
And we're about to find out exactly how good that is.
So far Tennessee's defense has exceeded expectations, currently 27th in the nation in yards per play allowed despite playing less of the hot garbage most of the Top 25 has seen. By comparison this is a stat the Vols ranked 100th and 102nd nationally in the last two seasons. And Tennessee is 14th in the nation in third down conversions allowed (7 of 31, 22.5%). After giving Utah State an average of 7.7 yards to gain on third down, Tennessee gave Arkansas State an average of 7.5 yards to make a first down on 17 attempts, of which they converted only four. We all love Third Down For What, but what's really been impressive is Tennessee's consistency on first and second down as well. And the Vols haven't been overly fortunate with turnovers or sacks, getting two of each in both games. The defense hasn't been flashy, it's just been very good.
All of these numbers are likely to get challenged by Oklahoma, especially if they can utilize the balance they've shown so far this season. But perhaps what we've seen from a Tennessee defense led mostly by veterans in the first string will show up again in Norman. If Trevor Knight wants to help us with an errant pass or two, great. But if the Vols show the same consistency on defense we've seen thus far against an offense this good? Then we'll know we're in for something exciting from this unit all season.
The Vols may come up short in some or all of these areas and take a beating against a great team. But the days of that happening are quickly coming to an end. Or the Vols may execute their gameplan and make things interesting into the second half; there is plenty of room for improvement here even without victory, plenty of ways to still feel good about this team going into a bye week and then the SEC gauntlet even if Oklahoma wins, as expected.
Of course, the only way to make the transition from the last time to the first time in the same game is to win one of these. Three seasons ago I got on a plane and flew from Lexington, KY to Fayetteville, AR to watch the Vols take a 49-7 beating. And while having friends who lived there at the time was the primary motivation, there was also a sense of wanting to be there, wanting to make sure I was paying attention so as not to miss the moment it started to turn around.
That night wasn't it, and this Oklahoma team far more resembles that Razorback team than the South Carolina squad the Vols vanquished last year. No offense to Team 117 and their efforts on that memorable day, but we've said many times for a team that will be built on so many young players from here that October afternoon wasn't the true beginning. The first time Tennessee turns the corner under Butch Jones is still out there.
I'm not flying to Norman this weekend, but I will be watching, as will you if you've spent the time to read these 1,500 words. Maybe it will turn south again in a hurry. But there's enough hope here now to believe even if it does, it won't last much longer. And if it doesn't, the Vols have already made progress.
And maybe, just maybe, if Justin Worley and Marquez North and an overachieving defense and the rest of Team 118 do the things to give Tennessee a chance in the fourth quarter? Maybe Saturday night isn't the last time. Maybe Saturday night could be the first time.