Tennessee at Oregon
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Sept. 4, 2013. (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2)
Where: Eugene, Ore.
Oregon at a glance:
Head coach: Mark Helfrich (1st season at Oregon and as a head coach)
All-time record: 603-472-46
2012 record: 12-1 (8-1 Pac-12)
Returning starters: 9 (offense) 7 (defense)
2012 overview: Oregon furthered its reputation as one of the top offensive programs in the nation in 2012, piling up at least 42 points in every regular-season win and topping the 50-point plateau an astonishing seven times. Former coach Chip Kelly’s famous fast-paced, spread offense failed to deliver only once last year in a 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford, a defeat that likely cost the Ducks a chance at going to the national title game. Oregon “settled” for a trip to the Fiesta Bowl where it easily dismissed Kansas State 35-17.
As usual, the Ducks put up gaudy offensive numbers, finishing fifth nationally in total offense (537.4 yards/game), second in scoring offense (49.5 points/game) and third in total rushing (315.2 yards/game). And though Oregon’s ultra-fast pace on offense can force its defense to stay on the field for more plays, it responded with a solid effort there as well, finishing 25th nationally in scoring defense (21.6 points given up/game).
After flirting with NFL opportunities in the past, Kelly finally decided to test his system at the next level and accepted a job with the Philadelphia Eagles in January. The Ducks promoted Helfrich, who had served as Kelly’s offensive coordinator for the past four years, with the hope that they can continue the success found under Kelly.
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. Can UT slow Oregon’s elite backfield?
Replacing running back Kenjon Barner would be a nearly impossible task for some schools, but Oregon has multiple options. Junior De’Anthony Thomas is one of the fastest players in the nation and he should pick up most of the slack. After averaging nearly 11 yards per carry as a freshman in 2011, he piled up 7.6 yards per carry as Barner’s primary backup last year.
Sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. He threw for 2,677 yards last year while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. His accuracy was reflected by his 32-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He can run too. He ran for 752 yards and five touchdowns, including four contests where he had 80+ yards on the ground.
2. Does Oregon skip a beat under Helfrich?
It’s hard to blame Oregon for wanting to bottle any bit of the success it found under Kelly. Helfrich will want to put his stamp on the team, but it’s clear what the ultimate goal for Oregon is: Keep playing fast, keep scoring and keep winning. It’s unfair to expect the exact same results under a first-year head coach, but with a loaded roster and a similar philosophy and playbook, it’s hard to see Oregon falling too far in 2013.
3. Does UT fold if it falls behind early?
That was an all-too-often event in the Derek Dooley era at UT. Tennessee would keep it respectable for a half and then because of some combination of talent, depth, coaching, conditioning and effort, the superior opponent would pile on the touchdowns in the second half.
Oregon might be the ultimate test of a team’s conditioning and will to compete in college football. The Ducks never slow down and keep punching until there are 50 or 60 points on the board. It won’t be shameful for UT to lose due to talent or depth, but it will be interesting to see if Butch Jones truly has changed the conditioning level and mental makeup of the Vols.
How will it play out?
Oregon will win this game. If that statement is wrong, Tennessee fans will be trying to construct a statue of Jones before the team’s charter lands back in Knoxville, and he’s the early favorite for SEC Coach of the Year.
The Ducks must adjust to life without Kelly and without notable players such as Barner, defensive end Dion Jordan and offensive lineman Kyle Long, but the positives outweigh the negatives for Oregon in this contest. Even if UT’s defense is vastly improved, it still won’t be able to stop Mariota, Thomas, running back Byron Marshall, tight end Colt Lyerla, receiver Josh Huff and the rest of Oregon’s offensive weapons.
The Vols will counter with an up-tempo attack of their own, but it simply won’t have the talent and seasoning that Oregon does. Expect UT to put a few scores on the board, but a score along the lines of 48-13, Oregon’s tally against UT in a 2011 win in Knoxville, is the best prediction at this point.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga