Tennessee at No. 2 Oregon
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Autzen Stadium (54,000) . Eugene, Ore.
Radio: Vol Network (106.5 FM Chattanooga)
Series Record: Oregon leads 1-0
Why Saturday is important
Butch Jones has passed seemingly every test thrown his way since taking over at Tennessee. Now the degree of difficulty goes from moderate to off-the-charts tough. As if playing in the SEC isn’t difficult enough, Jones and the Vols must also travel to play the No. 2 team in the nation in a hostile environment in a non-conference battle. A blowout loss would be understandable. A close defeat would be commendable. A win over the Ducks? Jones might have a street named after him in Knoxville before the team’s flight even lands back in town. Regardless, this will tell a lot about how far the Vols have come in the last year.
Three things to know about Oregon
First and foremost, the Ducks are fast – in just about every way possible. They line up fast, they snap the ball fast and their players are fast. Led by dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota and lightning-quick running back De’Anthony Thomas, the Ducks are likely the fastest overall team in the nation. The speed isn’t just limited to the offensive backfield, though. The offense, defense and special teams are all filled with gifted athletes. Tennessee’s discipline and team speed will be tested. . Chip Kelly, the perfector of Oregon’s fast-paced offense, has moved on to the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Ducks didn’t see any reason for huge change. They promoted offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and, thus far, haven’t skipped a beat. Though the competition hasn’t been too tough yet, the Ducks have outscored their opponents 125-13 through two games. . The SEC has ruled recently, but Oregon might be college football’s “it” team of the past few years. Known for their dazzling facilities, their plethora of uniform combinations and their deep Nike connections, the Ducks have become one of the most entertaining programs in the nation. And though they’ve come up just short of a national title the last four years, they were one of the most consistently successful teams under Kelly. If that trend continues with Helfrich, it seems to be a matter of when, not if, the Ducks will bring home a national championship.
What you should know about Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich
The Oregon native played quarterback at Southern Oregon from 1992-1995. After a brief stint in Europe, he returned to the state of Oregon, but this time as a GA for the Ducks in 1997. . He got his first full-time position as the quarterbacks coach at Boise State in 1998. After stops at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, he eventually returned to the Ducks in 2009 as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. . He quickly became Kelly’s right-hand man in designing and implementing Oregon’s fast-paced spread offense. He was named the head coach when Kelly opted to leave for the NFL following the 2012 season. . Over the course of 13 years as a coach, six of the offenses Helfrich has been part of have been ranked in the top ten nationally in scoring.
Tennessee player to watch
When safety Brian Randolph went down for the season in 2012 with a torn ACL, the Vols became more susceptible to giving up big plays. His return has helped stabilize the defense. He’ll face his biggest test so far on Saturday against a relentless offense that thrives on keeping the defense off balance and out of position. Randolph will not only need to help get the Vols lined up quickly, but he’ll also serve as the last line of defense against an offense known for its ability to break off big plays.
Oregon player to watch
He’s certainly not the biggest player Tennessee will see this year, but running back De’Anthony Thomas (5-9, 175) just might be the fastest. Known as the “Black Mamba” for his blazing speed, the former five-star recruit can turn any play into a big one. He averaged an astounding 10.8 yards per carry and 13.2 yards per catch as a freshman in 2011. His yards per carry dropped to “only” 7.6 in 2012. Now he’s the featured running back for the Ducks and he has piled up 252 yards of rushing through two games this year. Watch out for him on special teams, too. He has three career touchdowns on kickoff returns.
Random facts to impress your friends
The Vols haven’t won on the West Coast since knocking off UCLA in 1997. Not that they’ve had that many opportunities – the others were a 45-31 loss to Cal in 2007 and a 27-24 overtime setback against UCLA in 2008. . Tennessee is a very respectable 7-7-1 all-time against No. 2-ranked teams. . UT hasn’t won its first three games of the season since 2004. . The Vols are currently 17-14-4 against the current Pac-12 teams. . The Vols are currently riding a 12-game, regular season, non-conference winning streak. . Tennessee is tied for first in the nation in turnovers forced in 2013 (9). . Thus far, the Ducks have averaged more yards per run (10) than per pass (8.7).
“In my opinion, they’re a better football team,” said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who was comparing the 2013 Oregon team to the 2010 team he coached against when he was at Auburn and the Tigers and Ducks met in the national championship.
The Vols will win if …
They put their most complete effort together as a program in several years and they force Oregon into too many mistakes. They’ll need to win the turnover battle, the penalty battle and do their best to keep Oregon off the field by sustaining offensive drives of their own. They’ll have to show more ability to make plays in the passing game and, defensively, they must keep Oregon from enormous plays. The Ducks will get their plays of 20-plus yards, but keeping big plays in the 20-30 yard range instead of 60-70 will help.
The Vols will lose if …
Everything goes according to script. Oregon is faster, deeper and an overall better than UT in all three phases of the game. The Ducks should be able to hit a few plays early, get a lead and then wear UT down. Tennessee likely doesn’t have the offensive firepower to overcome an early deficit, so jumping out to a lead of a few touchdowns could end this one early. It will be somewhat surprising if Oregon isn’t in control of the game by the fourth quarter, if not earlier.
Unofficial injury report:
Out: WR Devrin Young, CB Michael Williams, TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, CB Riyahd Jones, WR Ryan Jenkins, TE Joseph Ayres, DT Maurice Couch (ineligible), Raiques Crump, OL Jacob Gilliam
Doubtful: LB Curt Maggitt, DE Corey Vereen
Questionable: WR Pig Howard
Probable: DE Jacques Smith
Oregon 49, Tennessee 17
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga