Tennessee is off to a wonderful start two games into the Butch Jones era which has Volunteer fans believing he’s the perfect man for the job, but he faces his biggest challenge this Saturday at Oregon.
The Ducks don’t have Chip Kelly any longer, but Mark Helfrich is experiencing the same type of offensive success with Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas lighting up scoreboards, which presents an unenviable challenge for the Vols to improve to 3-0.
When Oregon has the ball:
Oregon has scored 125 points in two games and boasts the No. 3 scoring average at 62.5 and the nation’s No. 2 rushing attack at a whopping 425 yards per game. Mariota has two 100-yard games on the ground at quarterback, and is on the short list for the Heisman trophy. Thomas is a threat to score every time he touches the ball; whether it is on special teams, rushing or receiving, he is a human highlight film.
Behind him are Byron Marshall, Ayele Forde and Thomas Tyner, who could get carries in the second half and are the next in a long line of great Ducks backs. Josh Huff is the Ducks’ leading receiver and although he hasn’t had great production (they haven’t needed him much), Colt Lyerla is a mismatch nightmare at tight end. They are the most efficient, explosive and dangerous offense in the country.
Tennessee is a work in progress on defense and despite forcing seven turnovers last week vs. Western Kentucky, including five in a six-play span, the defense has a lot to work on. The biggest weakness they have is stopping the run as they allowed 171 on the ground, including 111 to Antonio Andrews, who averaged 8.5 per carry.
The thing Oregon does best is run the football, so this will be the ultimate test for the Vols’ defense. Keeping the Ducks below 300 rushing yards would be a moral victory.
When Tennessee has the ball:
The best chance Tennessee has at keeping this game close going into the second half is by dominating the time of possession. Even then, Oregon is capable of scoring in 120 seconds or less, but Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane will need to churn out first down after first down to keep Mariota and Thomas on the sidelines.
The offensive line will open holes against this fast Oregon defense, but if Justin Worley can’t complete a third down pass to keep the clock running, any potential for an upset disappears as fast as Thomas in the open field.
Jones has the experience over Helfrich, who is in his first year as the head coach, but he has been in the program so he isn’t exactly a true rookie. The home crowd at Autzen Stadium is as loud as any place in the country, and their proximity to the field will make it tough for Worley, who has seen bigger crowds at Neyland Stadium — but not ones cheering against him.
I think Jones can devise a game plan to keep the Vols in range for a half, but I do not see Tennessee pulling off what would be an epic upset after 60 minutes. Tennessee is a year or two away from this type of upset, but it will serve as a litmus test for how far the team has to go in order to compete for championships.