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Staff Picks: Vols vs Oklahoma

Every staff member had the Vols winning and covering against Bowling Green. But what do they think about a tough Sooners squad coming to Knoxville? Hint: it'll be a close one.

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Though the game didn't go as easily as most projected, the staff ultimately went a perfect 7-0 last week against the spread, with everyone correctly projecting Tennessee to cover the 21 points against Bowling Green. The Closest to the Pin for week one goes to Incipient, whose writeup missed the mark but whose 52-28 projection was just five points off on the final margin and nine points off the total of 89 points scored in the Vols' 59-30 win over the Falcons. Three different staff members came close to nailing the final margin, with Chris, Charlie, and Nathanael all picking the Vols by 28, but all three expected Tennessee to hold Bowling Green under 20 points. Finally, a shoutout goes to daetilus in the comments, whose 55-24 projection was just two points off on the margin and ten on the total, beating out Incipient for closest projection from the Rocky Top Talk community.

With the opener in our rearview mirror, we've spent the last few days with our attention focused on a much tougher opponent, with the Oklahoma Sooners coming to town for Tennessee's home opener. You've spent the week reading about our hopes and concerns for the Vols as they take on Oklahoma, but now it's time to pin down predictions from every staff member. Can the Vols pull it out?

Incipient (1-0 straight up, 1-0 against the spread): There's not much that would surprise me in this game. The defense could turn Baker Mayfield into Nate Longshore and turn the second half into a victory lap for a Vols team that is emphatically back. The offensive line struggles could return against a quality front and couple with secondary issues to yield an Oklahoma romp. Or the game could go down to the wire in any number of ways. I truly believe that Tennessee has the talent to win this game, especially if we see more of Darrin Kirkland Jr. and if the massive list of players who were sick, banged up, or suspended against Bowling Green (Pig Howard, Marquez North, Kahlil McKenzie, Todd Kelly Jr., and Justin Martin) are back at 100% and are ready to take on expanded roles against Oklahoma. The Vols' defensive line should be a problem for the Sooners' front, and expanded roles for Kirkland, Kelly, and Martin should mitigate last week's issues on the back end. On offense, Tennessee has an abundance of playmakers, and if they can get the ball in space, the Vols should put up points.

So why am I not confident? Maybe this is battered fan syndrome, but I just can't get the last two times Butch Jones went into a copiously hyped, potentially season defining home game against a similarly talented team out of my head. Both games were sloppy, ugly affairs that gave us two of Tennessee's worst offensive performances since 2011. The pieces are all in place for this game to be different, but I can't bring myself to predict good things in this situation until I see it happen. Tennessee's defense should create some short fields, but an offense predicated on speed will struggle in power situations and settle for too many field goals. Oklahoma won't move the ball consistently, but when they do, they'll score touchdowns, and that will be enough. I think all of us can earnestly hope I'm not Closest to the Pin this week. #TeamHunter. Oklahoma 21 Tennessee 16

Hunter (1-0 straight up, 1-0 against the spread): Tennessee's defense should be much better than it looked against Bowling Green-- the Vols finished 12th in defensive S&P+ last year and almost everyone of note returns. That said, I agree with everyone else that this game is likely to be a high scoring affair-- Tennessee has weapons (Hurd, Kamara, Howard, and Wolf) on offense and weaknesses (MLB, second corner, tackle) on defense. The Sooners will keep pace with the Vols until the Tennessee defense, aided by a ferocious crowd, makes a key defensive stop in the fourth quarter. Tennessee 35 Oklahoma 24

Chris (1-0 straight up, 1-0 against the spread): So Oklahoma fared better in their MACtion test last week, rolling up on Akron 41-3. Early returns: deep routes are good for Oklahoma, which in theory would be fine if Tennessee's non-Cam Sutton parts of the secondary were still licking their wounds. Net result: I'm worried! On the other hand, game experience plus the return of the guy who coaches the secondary should help. Net result: I'm okay!

However, OU for some reason didn't run the ball effectively and Akron ....kind of did, relatively speaking? I don't really know what happened here or why, but now that Tennessee looks to have an actual running game, that's good! Net result: I'm good! On the other hand, Oklahoma likely played vanilla and didn't bother leaning on the run. Net result: I'm okay!

And hey, Checker Neyland and the fans will be hyped! Net result: I'm good! Of course, last year's Checker Neyland game was the worst game I saw start-to-finish (since I only tuned into VT00WF in the fourth quarter). Net result: I'm worried!

Ultimately, this feels like a game that'll either cause Tennessee to go off or to suffer a loss, make everyone wonder what happened, then Oklahoma rolls to an 11-1 record or something along those lines because that's how the schedule goes. I'll go on the loss side here, but could talk myself into anything within 2 TDs on either side if you ask me again later. Oklahoma 31, Tennessee 23. Or heck, ask me again tomorrow and I might say Tennessee wins by 12.

Charlie (1-0 straight up, 1-0 against the spread): Who knows how this game is going to go? We basically know close to nothing about Oklahoma after their thrashing of Akron. It's clear that the Sooners have problems with their offensive line and that's a plus for Tennessee, but we didn't see a ton of production out of the Vols d-line against Bowling Green. Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon may be a great running back duo but they barely saw any reps on the ground on Saturday. Baker Mayfield is supposedly a threat through the air and Tennessee's secondary looked completely lost at time against BG, but Oklahoma also didn't score a touchdown until 25 minutes into the Akron game.

There's good reason why this game is pick 'em in Vegas right now. [Ed.: This was a pick'em when the email went out for staff picks earlier in the week.]

The key to victory for UT will be minimizing Oklahoma's offense by pressuring Baker Mayfield and forcing him into bad throws and shutting down OU's potentially dynamic running game. I'm confident enough in Tennessee's offense to think that Josh Dobbs and Co. will put points on the board, it will be avoiding mistakes and holding down OU's offense that will win Tennessee this game. As of right now, I think the Vols can accomplish what is needed of them and use the raucous home crowd to their advantage. Tennessee 31 Oklahoma 27

Nathanael (1-0 straight up, 1-0 against the spread): I honestly have no idea what to expect in this one. I greedily want it to be a close, competitive game, but it could turn out to be a blowout on either end. Or even a game that's just barely out of reach for either team. Neither team gave away very much in their first game of the season, so it's difficult to accurately project a lot about it. Both teams have playmakers on both sides of the ball, and both are supposed to be effective running teams. Oklahoma may not have looked like it in their first game, but the Vols certainly did.

This game should live up to the hype. Last season's Checker Neyland game did, even though the Vols lost and didn't play well through most of it; it was still a close game the entire time. This one should see more scoring, and ultimately that energy should be just enough to help the Vols get revenge on the Sooners. Tennessee 30 Oklahoma 27

Joel (1-0 straight up, 1-0 against the spread): From yesterday. Tennessee 38 Oklahoma 35

Will (1-0 straight up, 1-0 against the spread): I think Tennessee will have every opportunity to win in what both local and national voices are calling an even game.  In such an even contest, I'm inclined to lean toward Oklahoma because the Sooners have won games like this before and Stoops has done so on the road.  You can't put too much stock in the "Tennessee has struggled with ranked teams" conversation, because we've struggled with everyone.  This is the first time the Vols have had the firepower to really have a legitimate shot.  So to me if they do lose in a close game, this isn't, "Tennessee loses again, same old same old," it's, "Tennessee comes up short in the first of many legitimate attempts."  They haven't earned the expectation of victory in a game like this just yet.  But they're going to get a lot of chances.  Besides, maybe it's better to be pleasantly surprised when they breakthrough than to expect it without the evidence just yet.  Either way, I'll be changing this pick to Vols by 14 just before kickoff.   Oklahoma 38 Tennessee 31

Rocky Top Talk Staff Average (1-0 straight up, 1-0 against the spread): Tennessee 29.1 Oklahoma 29.0

Vegas (for reference): Oklahoma -1.5. Over/under 63. Oklahoma 32 Tennessee 31

Usually, the staff average is rounded to the nearest whole number. We went to one decimal place this week to show you just how close we perceive this matchup to be (and to produce a straight up staff pick). There should be no lack for drama tomorrow evening. Go Vols!