Two weeks into the Butch Jones tenure at the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Volunteers have gotten off to about as good of a start as they could imagine. The Vols pitched a shutout in a glorified tuneup game to start the year against overmatched Austin Peay before earning a dominating victory against Bobby Petrino’s Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on Saturday.
Neither victory was the kind that you hang your hat on as a football team, but seeing a Tennessee team that clearly overmatched their opponent go out and dictate the way the Vols have is a welcomed departure from the three years of futility Tennessee fans endured under Derek Dooley. However, now things really start to get difficult for Butch Jones and Tennessee.
A trip to Eugene to play the Oregon Ducks looms on the horizon, and despite having lost head coach Chip Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles, Oregon looks as explosive as ever. They enter the week ranked at No. 2 in the nation and are coming off a 59-10 dismantling of the Virginia Cavaliers in Virginia.
Mark Helfrich has Oregon’s offense clicking on all cylinders and these Oregon Ducks look as good or better than the 2010 team that absolutely destroyed the Vols in Neyland Stadium on their way to a national title game appearance. Saturday, they’ll be over three touchdown favorites over the Vols.
So what exactly is reasonable in terms of expectations for Butch Jones and Tennessee?
Competitive aspirations aside, if the Vols were to play with any sort of intensity for four entire quarters, that’d certainly be an improvement over their last game with the Ducks. It seems a given that you demand a team give maximum effort for four quarters, but given this team’s propensity to give up when overmatched under Derek Dooley, it’s only natural that you’d fear effort could be a lingering issue.
The Vols routinely rolled over in the second half in game’s against upper-echelon opponents, and playing the role of massive underdog in a place like Autzen Stadium can break the confidence and focus of even the most veteran of teams. Unfortunely, this Tennessee team is far from veteran.
Of course, the Tennessee Volunteers will have to lean heavily on a running game that has impressed through the first two weeks of the season. With Oregon’s explosive offense, Tennessee will desperately want to try to do whatever they can to control the tempo and keep that high-powered offense off the field.
A veteran offensive line combined with two experienced (and improved) options at tailback shouldn’t be rattled by a hostile environment, having dealt with week-to-week life in the SEC over the last few years. However, expect Oregon to plan accordingly and load the box, encouraging new junior starting quarterback Justin Worley to try to beat the Ducks with his arm.
Worley has been erratic in his first two starts, struggling with accuracy in limited passing attempts during the first two weeks of the season. Oregon will undoubtedly bait Worley into taking shots downfield, and Worley will have to be able to take advantage if the Vols are going to have any shot.
Defensively, the Tennessee Volunteers will have to continue to swarm the football and wreak havoc. Oregon led the nation last year in turnover margin, and, thus far, they’ve forced opponents into six turnovers in 2013 to their own zero.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek’s unit forced seven turnovers (five in six plays) on Saturday, and while it isn’t realistic to expect a team as well-coached as Oregon to give the football away over a half-dozen times, the Vols will have to force Oregon into mistakes if they hope to notch the upset victory on the road.
Ultimately, the Vols are looking at the prospects of being massive underdogs because they don’t have the type of talent Oregon does, and everything will have to go right for the Vols to be competitive in this one in Autzen. However, don’t expect Butch Jones’ squad to rollover the way they may have in the past.
The Tennessee Volunteers have a new energy about them under Butch Jones, and I expect the effort to be there on Saturday at the very least. And while effort alone won’t be enough to beat Oregon, that’s about the most reasonable expectation you could have this weekend.
Then again, when has an SEC fanbase ever been collectively reasonable?