With all due respect to the season opener, all the goodwill checks Butch Jones has written over the last two years will have a chance to be cashed one week later on September 12. Tennessee and Oklahoma will collide in front of a hungry Neyland Stadium crowd. Unlike the ones which witnessed a moment of glory against South Carolina in 2013 or a slow but certain death against Florida last year, the crowd in week two should not be burdened by defeat. Barring what would be a very unfortunate toe stub against Bowling Green, the Vols should face Oklahoma in full optimism mode.
Along those lines, I've already heard hopeful comparisons to a September Saturday nine years ago, when Tennessee authoritatively announced it was back (you know, when "back" could be used with a straight face when you'd only been gone for one year). The Vols demolished #9 California in the 2006 season opener, setting the stage for a nine win season and a step forward from disappointment. Tennessee wouldn't have to open up a 35 point lead on Oklahoma to appease the masses, but the building optimism in Knoxville is allowing fans to believe such a thing is possible.
Like Phillip Fulmer before him, Bob Stoops faces a different set of expectations as he enters his 17th season than Butch Jones entering year three. Stoops is coming off just his third eight win season since leading the Sooners to the National Championship in 2000. Oklahoma went 8-4 in 2005, 8-5 in 2009, and then 8-5 last year after being ranked fourth in the preseason. Stoops has led the Sooners to at least 10 wins every other year this millennium.
But stability often breeds restlessness in this sport, and so Oklahoma made changes at offensive and defensive coordinator heading into 2015.
Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery is now a co-defensive coordinator with Bob's brother Mike (EDIT: Montgomery accepted a position with the Packers shortly after this promotion in January). And on the offensive side Lincoln Riley comes over from East Carolina to replace Josh Heupel.
Both of OU's previous eight win seasons were followed by Big 12 Championships. I would argue the Big 12 is a different animal these days; the Sooners will not be the preseason favorites with both TCU and Baylor expected to make another playoff push. And since it's now been seven years since Oklahoma was truly a contender for the game's biggest prize, the pressure will be on the new guys to perform much more quickly.
It's Tennessee who's trying to break through, in a sense, but is there an argument for more pressure on Oklahoma in this game?
Before we get too close to September to be rational, consider too what Team 119's most reasonable goal should be. If the answer is winning the SEC East (and I think it is), a loss to Oklahoma doesn't have to derail anything. The Vols are good enough to think about Atlanta but not quite good enough to think about the playoff. So, on paper, there's an argument here for only good things happening to the Vols when they host the Sooners.
Of course, the game won't be played on paper, it'll be played in front of 102,455 and most of them in orange. However, if the Vols do stumble against what may or may not be another 10+ win Oklahoma team, though it would certainly feel disappointing in the moment, it would not impact Tennessee's ultimate goal for 2015. There's little about losing to Oklahoma that can't be fixed by beating Florida.
In this we find another large difference in the third year of Butch Jones vs the third year of Derek Dooley, despite nearly identical records in their first two campaigns. When Dooley's 2012 Vols faced NC State in the opener, there was an air of desperation. With little else to build confidence on, the Vols needed to win that game to set a tone. And they did.
That tone lasted two weeks, and then the truth of Dooley's Vols was revealed. No matter what happens against Oklahoma, and no matter how up or down it feels in the moment, the real tone for Butch Jones and Team 119 will come in a three week stretch starting two Saturdays later. Both teams will carry preseason expectations into Neyland Stadium. But a loss will cost Oklahoma more. Tennessee is in a rare position of being good enough to think about winning this game (as opposed to last year) but not good enough to be destroyed if they don't.
Or at least that's how it goes on June 15. By August 15, the frenzy will have claimed us all. But at least this time, it's a frenzy built more on hope than fear. And that hope should be strong enough to extend beyond whatever happens on September 12.