KNOXVILLE – Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has seen a lot of good football teams over the past few years.
In six years at Central Michigan and Cincinnati he played the likes of Oklahoma, Georgia, Virginia Tech and Michigan State. He’s never seen anything quite like No. 2 Oregon, though.
“Probably the most complete team I've seen in a number of years to date,” Jones said of the Ducks. “Team speed, everything that you think of when you think of Oregon comes to your mind.
"They’re as good as advertised.”
While the Vols (2-0) faced a respectable Western Kentucky squad last week, it's clear that the competition goes to a whole different level this week.
The numbers don’t lie when it comes to Oregon. The Ducks are 31-3 at home in the last five years. They’ve been to four consecutive BCS bowl games. They haven’t lost a game in regulation since Nov. 19, 2011. And despite the departure of former head coach Chip Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles, they’re off to a 2-0 start this season under new coach Mark Helfrich, defeating Nicholls State and Virginia by a combined total of 125-13.
Paced by starting quarterback Marcus Mariota and do-it-all back De’Anthony Thomas, the Ducks have already started to pile up huge numbers in 2013. They’re third nationally in total offense (664.5 yards/game) and in scoring offense (62.5 points/game). But the Ducks have been good in all three phases, not just offense. It’s hard to find a true weakness.
“[They have] a very, very athletic quarterback [Mariota] that can throw the football, make plays with his legs,” Jones said. “Great team speed on the perimeter, great running back, physical offensive line. Defensively, very, very physical, very skilled in the secondary, and then where you really notice it is in the special teams. Our special teams game, just from a speed standpoint alone, is going to be challenged this week.”
On top of the challenge on the field, Saturday’s trip will also be the first game away from Neyland Stadium this season for the Vols. With an inexperienced roster, that means many will be getting their first taste of life on the road at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, a venue regularly ranked among the loudest stadiums in college football.
The Vols can try to simulate the environment at practice, but that’ll just be a glimpse of what’s to come.
“We’ve done a good job of pumping in crowd noise here and there just to get the aspect of what a loud fanbase is like,” said starting quarterback Justin Worley, who will be making just his second career start on the road (Arkansas, 2011 is the other).
And while the environment is tough to duplicate, so is the tempo and athleticism that Oregon shows. The Ducks are averaging 9.5 yards per play on offense so far this season. They’ve had touchdown plays of 71, 40, 49, 31, 30 and 23 yards alredy in just two games. They aim to wear opponents down and then use their speed to hit home-run plays.
"You know, it's challenging," Jones said. "Where it's really difficult is to really simulate game conditions against Oregon is your scout team. You know that's where it's going to be a challenge for our defense and we're going to have to find some creative measures in terms of really getting them to finish the play and get back and get the call and get lined up and that's the thing that we can't lose sight of is that it's still about finishing plays.
"I think sometimes there's a mindset that we've got to get lined up, we've got to get lined up that players forget to finish plays. And at the end of the day it still comes down to one-on-one matchups and finishing plays."
Randolph named SEC Defensive POW: Tennessee safety Brian Randolph was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week on Monday – the first UT defender to receive the honor since safety Eric Berry in 2008.
Randolph had his first two career interceptions in UT's 52-20 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday. He had 38 returns yards off the two picks and added eight tackles and one pass break up.
In total, the Vols forced seven turnovers against WKU – the most since 1984 for Tennessee.
Injury update: Jones said he fully anticipates defensive end Jacques Smith (thumb) playing at Oregon. The senior missed the first two games, but had the pins removed from his fractured thumb last Wednesday and has been cleared to practice this week.
Linebacker Curt Maggitt (ACL) and defensive end Corey Vereen (knee) are both questionable this week. Maggitt dressed out and went through warm ups on Saturday, but did not play. Vereen has yet to practice in full pads since injuring his knee early in fall camp.
Florida time/TV set: Tennessee’s game at Florida on Sept. 21 will be CBS’s SEC Game of the Week and will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET.
The Oregon game this week is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga