Tennessee coach Butch Jones leads his team onto the field for the season opener against Bowling Green in Nashville on Sept. 5. (Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Kickoff: 6 p.m.
KNOXVILLE — Oklahoma wants to show it's better than its late-season slide last year suggested. Tennessee is seeking to prove it has regained the national prominence it had lost the last several years.
Both programs get a chance to make an early statement Saturday when the 23rd-ranked Vols (1-0) host No. 19 Oklahoma (1-0).
"It's a great opportunity for us to show the nation what we're made of," Tennessee safety Brian Randolph said.
Tennessee ended a string of four straight losing seasons last year. The next step for the Vols is to beat a Top 25 team, something they've failed to do in 27 of their last 28 meetings against ranked foes.
The Vols will try to reverse that trend in front of a sellout crowd that will be the biggest ever to witness an Oklahoma game.
Although the Sooners haven't played in front of a crowd this big before — Neyland Stadium holds 102,455 fans — they have a much better recent track record than Tennessee in high-profile games.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said the big crowd shouldn't intimidate the Sooners and pointed out that his team has won at Florida State and Notre Dame in recent seasons.
"We go to stadiums every week and generally when we show up, it isn't half empty," Stoops said. "It's always full."
Oklahoma also wants to continue its run of success against the Southeastern Conference.
After capping the 2013 season by beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the Sooners knocked off Tennessee 34-10 last year. Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker garnered some attention this week by saying he didn't understand why the SEC receives so much praise.
"I hope the SEC players don't let it go to their head because that's how you get beat," Striker said. "I look forward to it. Gas them up. Just bring them right back down to earth."
Oklahoma fell to earth late last season by dropping five of its last nine games, including a 40-6 setback to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. That fade helps explain why Oklahoma is picked to finish third in the Big 12.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones believes people are selling the Sooners short. He called Oklahoma "a top-five football team and a top-five football program."
Here's a look at some things to watch when Oklahoma visits Tennessee.
WHO'S COMING & GOING: Tennessee receiver Alton "Pig" Howard and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez return this week after serving one-game suspensions. Howard led the Vols in catches and yards receiving last season. The absence of Martinez may have led to some breakdowns in pass coverage last week that allowed Bowling Green to throw for 433 yards. Tennessee will be missing defensive tackle Danny O'Brien, who was suspended this week for a violation of team rules and policies.
WHO'S RUSHING THE PASSER? Oklahoma will try to repeat its five-sack performance from its victory over Tennessee last season. Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt make Tennessee the only Football Bowl Subdivision program to return two players who posted double-digit sack totals last season, though neither player recorded a sack against Bowling Green.
TALENTED TANDEMS: Both teams boast formidable duos at running back. Oklahoma has added Joe Mixon to team with Samaje Perine, who rushed for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Tennessee's Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd combined to run for 267 yards and five touchdowns last week as the Vols gained a total of 399 yards rushing.
QUALITY QUARTERBACKS: Although Kamara and Hurd ran wild last week, the key to slowing down Tennessee's offense is containing quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who ran for 89 yards against Bowling Green. "We'll be pretty successful if we stop him," Striker said. "They want to do everything through him and his ability." Oklahoma has its own solid quarterback in Baker Mayfield, who threw for 388 yards and three touchdowns last week against Akron.
KICKING CONCERNS: Tennessee's Aaron Medley made 76.9 percent of his field-goal attempts last year, but he went 1-for-3 against Bowling Green with misses from 29 and 42 yards away. In a game that's projected as a virtual toss-up, the Vols need Medley to return to his usual form.
AP freelance writer Murray Evans in Norman, Okla., contributed to this report.comments powered by Disqus