published Saturday, September 14th, 2013

Tennessee Vols underdogs vs. Ducks

University of Tennessee Volunteers first year head coach Butch Jones greats fans during the Vol Walk outside of Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Aug. 31, 2013.
University of Tennessee Volunteers first year head coach Butch Jones greats fans during the Vol Walk outside of Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Aug. 31, 2013.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

GAME DAY

What: Tennessee at No. 2 Oregon

When: 3:30 p.m. today

TV: ABC

Radio: 106.5

TENNESSEE (2-0) AT NO. 2 OREGON (2-0)

3:30 p.m. * Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Ore. * WTVC/106.5 FM

The matchup

The sleek “O” on Oregon’s helmets — what color they’ll be today no one yet knows — might as well stand for offense, but the Ducks have a pretty good defense, too. Oregon held Virginia under 300 yards of offense last week and intercepted three passes, which the offense turned into 21 points. The Ducks defense is on the field more than half of every game, but Nick Aliotti’s unit is active and well-coached.

Six of the 11 defensive lineman on Oregon’s two-deep depth chart were four-star recruits, including tackles Arik Armstead (6-8, 286) and Ricky Havili-Heimuli (6-4, 314) and ends DeForest Buckner (6-7, 286) and Christian French (6-5, 244). Tony Washington has played well replacing Dion Jordan, the No. 3 pick in this year’s NFL draft. Cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell are future NFL players, and safeties Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson and Erick Dargan combined to intercept 10 passes last season.

“We’re certainly not overlooking them,” Vols right guard Zach Fulton said. “We know they’re a great defense. We know they have a little bit different types of schemes than we’re used to, but we’re going to practice them and make sure we get them all down.”

One to watch

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota is the straw that stirs the drink for Oregon's offense. Tennessee typically has struggled against mobile quarterbacks, and Mariota is one of the best runners in the country. De'Anthony Thomas and some talented wide receivers provide the flash for the Ducks, but Mariota is the key, and the Vols must be disciplined and keep him in the pocket.

"We recognize how talented he is, and any time you have a talented quarterback, that's where it all starts on offense," said Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez. "They have, so to speak, the three-headed horse: they've got the quarterback, they've got the tailback [De'Anthony Thomas] and they've got the wideouts. We've just got to execute and get lined up and play with leverage and make plays in space.

In the end

What approach will Jones take with his team, which enters the game as a four-touchdown underdog? Will the coach pull out all the stops and make some aggressive decisions? The Vols head west aiming for a win and not just a close game or a good showing, but Oregon is again a national title contender and could end the weekend atop the polls depending on what happens between Alabama and Texas A&M more than 2,200 miles away.

It’s a very tough matchup for Tennessee. Oregon has the speed to exploit the perimeter of the Vols’ defense and the tempo to wear down the Vols mentally and physically with big plays and an attacking style, and the Ducks succeed doing what they do against most teams. Offensively, Tennessee’s passing game remains a major work in progress as it heads into a noisy, hostile road environment for the first time.

Tennessee has done some good things in their first two games, but this afternoon figures to be a tough one for the Vols.

Prediction: Oregon 55, Tennessee 24

EUGENE, Ore. — The Tennessee football team's flight to the Pacific Northwest on Friday was a lonely one.

Sure, an 85-man football team and a handful of coaches, support staffers and athletic department administrators would suggest otherwise, but the Volunteers arrived in Oregon knowing how most analysts, pundits and prognosticators view their chances at upsetting the second-ranked Ducks.

A trendy pick to be upset by Western Kentucky last week, Tennessee hasn't been put in the opposite position this week.

"All we know," senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James said earlier this week, "is we're the only people that think we're going to win, is the people in that locker room and the people in that coaches room.

"That's all we need."

Recent history -- and a simple comparison of Tennessee and Oregon's respective rosters -- tells you the Vols will need plenty to pull off an upset as a four-touchdown underdog.

Told that was the spread, Tennessee linebacker Brent Brewer replied, "That's a lot."

The Ducks, perhaps two wins away last season from their second national championship game appearance in three years, have lost just three games at Autzen Stadium, nationally regarded as one of the country's loudest venues, since 2007.

Tennessee's last two trips to the West Coast ended in losses to Pac-12 teams in California (2007) and UCLA (2008).

Those things, of course, will have no impact on today's outcome.

"I'm really not concerned with them. I'm concerned with us," James said. "We've just got to make sure we know our game. If we play our game, we play the way we know we can play, I feel like we can play against anybody in the country."

For Tennessee, it may be less about the outcome and more about how the Vols handle their appearance on the national stage for the first time under coach Butch Jones.

The Vols have a goal of winning today, but a good showing -- and that's difficult to measure -- certainly wouldn't hurt the notion that Jones and his staff have Tennessee on the right track.

"It's a tremendous, tremendous challenge, but it's also a great opportunity," Jones said. "That toughness is going to be on display. We're going to have to be able to withstand without substituting [defensively] seven, eight, nine plays in a row.

"Can our defensive front play winning football for eight, nine plays in a row without substituting? Can we get lined up fast and decipher the call and execute our assignment when you can't hear, you can't communicate, you're on the road, you're in a hostile environment, you're in a different environment that nobody's used to even being in?

"That's all part of that mental toughness, that mental conditioning," Jones said. "It's going to be on display. A lot of our younger players are going to have to grow up in a hurry."

Tennessee is on a 16-game losing streak against ranked opponents, a skid that dates to Lane Kiffin's win against South Carolina in Knoxville in 2009. The Vols last beat a ranked opponent on the road in 2006, when Tennessee beat Georgia 51-33 in Athens.

You have to go back to 2000, when Tennessee won 17-14 at 17th-ranked South Carolina, to find the last time the Vols beat a ranked team on the road while unranked.

"We're not paying too much attention to that," senior right guard Zach Fulton said of the Vols' underdog status.

"We're going to go out there and execute our game plan and be the Tennessee that we know we can be."

The unforgiving part of Tennessee's schedule starts today, and the Vols quickly will learn where they are under Jones and how far they have to go.

"We're asking a lot of our players, but we'll find out more where we're at," Jones said of the schedule, which has Tennessee playing at Oregon and Florida on consecutive September Saturdays.

"You look at the overall nature of our schedule this year, like I told you, some people said it's the most difficult schedule in the history of college football. That's why I keep talking about demanding from ourselves championship habits, focusing on the process, being able to withstand and persevere and show great resiliency. Our schedule dictates that as well.

"It's also a great opportunity, and it's putting Tennessee on the national stage."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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