You made it to Friday.
The week has been beautifully long. Butch Jones was on Scott Van Pelt's first week as late night SportsCenter host, doing basically his greatest hits of coachspeak. Calhoun's on the river has basically been the red carpet all week:
Photo: The picture of the night. WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross met coach Butch Jones at Calhoun’s on the... http://t.co/ZKEkDH4BsL— Calhoun's Restaurant (@calhouns) September 10, 2015
(Can we get Johnny something a little more orange?)
Things that used to happen here are happening here for the first time in eight years. Can Tennessee add the most important thing to the list Saturday night?
Can Josh Dobbs take advantage against a good defense?
Given what we saw against Bowling Green, Tennessee wants to run and run and run and run and run. If/when Oklahoma adjusts defensively, can Dobbs take advantage through the air?
His completion percentage has been always been strong: 63.3% last season would have made him a Top 30 quarterback nationally if he had enough snaps to qualify, and he followed that up with 68.2% against Bowling Green and really no throws that looked like bad decisions. We know Dobbs can rip through poor defenses, and his performance against Iowa was steady. He was also relatively accurate against the best defense he faced after the initial Alabama surprise against Missouri, but the Vols failed to connect on big plays and Dobbs finished 24 of 37 (64.9%) but for only 195 yards (5.3 YPA).
One the clearest places the Vols can grow offensively is big plays in the passing game. Tennessee completed just 13 passes of 30+ yards last year, 99th nationally. Saturday they hit just two. The Vols went downfield for Preston Williams a couple of times unsuccessfully. But if a good Oklahoma defense presses up to stop the run, Tennessee will have to take advantage in the passing game. If Dobbs is up to the task, he could lead the Vols to their biggest win yet against his stiffest defensive challenge.
A second chance for the offensive line
Of course, if what happened up front last year happens again, there won't be anything for Dobbs to take advantage of.
By the way, I love Eric Striker. I love him in part because he comes with the territory. We've spent the last few years doing our most passionate feuding with Vanderbilt coaches and, even worse, players who chose to go to Vanderbilt instead of Tennessee. I'd much rather have Eric Striker and Bob Stoops as the villains.
Striker earned it last fall. Tennessee's offensive line has to earn it Saturday night. There are no inexperienced names in the starting lineup; all of these guys got a taste of it in Norman last fall, all of them are looking for redemption. Protecting Josh Dobbs should be an easier task than protecting Justin Worley, but Dobbs wasn't the cure-all. Again, see the Missouri game, as six sacks slowed the passing game and negated Dobbs' gains on the ground.
The Vols' line doesn't have to be perfect. It needs to be consistent for the run game to do its thing. And it needs to give Dobbs a chance.
Oklahoma finds out what playing freshmen at offensive tackle is like
At or near the top of the list of Tennessee's best players are Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt. Last year they combined for 21 sacks and 35 tackles for loss. Against Bowling Green they had none of the above. I know, they're awful, let's get Kyle Phillips in here pronto.
Tennessee looked french vanilla in showing blitz against the Falcons, hoping their front four could get sufficient pressure against one of the most experienced offensive lines in college football. One would hope this was a factor in giving up so many deep balls. The Vols should show and do more up front against Oklahoma, but one of the few places where the Falcons may be outright better than the Sooners is on the offensive line.
OU struggled to run on Akron, 100 yards on 33 carries. The Sooners started a pair of freshmen at tackle: true freshman Dru Samia at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Orlando Brown on the left side. Brown, you may recall, was a Tennessee commitment for a long time before moving to Oklahoma the week of signing day in 2014 with academic issues in the equation.
Coming into Norman last year we spoke of our offensive line in sentences containing a lot of "maybe" and "hope". We didn't really know Eric Striker, but we and the rest of the nation were familiar when it was over. Those roles need to reverse tomorrow night, as two of Tennessee's best players make a difference against a line whose best days are ahead of it.
If Willie Martinez can't fix everything...
What makes me most nervous about the secondary struggles last week: it was very similar to Missouri's fourth quarter in Knoxville last year. Late in the game with the Tigers clinging to a 16-13 lead, Maty Mauk found Jimmie Hunt on 3rd and 8 in single coverage against Justin Coleman. It went for 73 yards and a touchdown. After Tennessee went three and out, Mauk went deep on single coverage on the first play of their next drive, 35 yards to Bud Sasser to set up the dagger.
The Vols had major problems with receivers named Cooper last year, as others did, but non-Sutton corners getting beat deep in single coverage was particularly costly against Missouri and certainly last week against Bowling Green. Only two schools gave up nine passing plays of 20+ yards in week one: Florida Atlantic and Tennessee.
All of these things work together. Dobbs can't take full advantage without the help of his offensive line. The secondary can't be at their best if the pass rush can't take full advantage of a young offensive line. But if all we can do in week one is overreact, week two and Oklahoma will bring real live truth for Team 119.
I'll tell you this, though. I'm not worried about this team's ability to get it done at the end of the game. We've already seen Josh Dobbs lead the Vols from 14 down in the final 4:52 to win at South Carolina. We keep bringing up the Missouri game from last year, but the Vols also went 79 yards in 14 plays to answer and give themselves a chance with the onside kick. And their poise was on display early last week: when it looked for a moment like the defense might never force a punt again and Bowling Green had closed to 21-20, the offense calmly marched 75 yards in 11 plays, then sped up for a five play drive for six with just 24 seconds left in the half. Oklahoma has experience winning big games that Tennessee does not. But Tennessee has shown maturity, especially on offense, beyond its years.
Nevermind what we say: the nation at-large has been arguing all week this is a dead even match-up. Vegas has put it right at a pick 'em, and Bill Connelly's F/+ picks take the Sooners by, apparently, less than one tenth of a point. Under Butch Jones Tennessee's program has risen back to a prime-time ranked match-up that is, by all accounts, a game Tennessee is going to have a even shot to win. As we've said all week, this alone is an accomplishment, and this alone has made this week fun.
It's up to the Vols, with as much of an assist as they can get from Neyland Stadium, to take it from here. We've got enough bricks now to start a fight. Let's see if we've got enough to win one.