Strength of Schedule: Tennessee

Oklahoma heads to Knoxville looking to knock off an up-and-coming SEC foe

For the second year in a row, Sooners Illustrated breaks down Oklahoma’s toughest games for the upcoming season. The rating system is based on the importance of a win, the strength of the opponent and a general idea of how key the game will be in terms of scheduling and performance.

It starts with the easiest game and ends up with the toughest.

9. Tennessee

This game will have a much different feel than the 2014 version, when the Sooners next looked like they weren’t in control. Tennessee is much better, and Oklahoma isn’t the national-championship contender it was believed to be last year. The young Volunteers are still young, but they are a year older. Now, they’re a dark-horse pick to make the SEC Championship game.

2014 record: 7-6

Last year vs. OU: 34-10, Oklahoma

Why this game is dangerous: Because Tennessee is legit good. The Volunteers are no joke, and this early in the season (Game 2), Oklahoma will have to travel to Knoxville. Every single weapon comes back for Tennessee – powerful running back Jalen Hurd, top receiver Pig Howard and high-ceiling athlete Marquez North, who missed most of last year with an injury. Oklahoma won’t have long to get its offense together either, which will be key in attacking a Tennessee defense that lost its leader: Middle linebacker A.J. Johnson.

Players to watch: This is a quarterback battle at its very heart. Tennessee has to fill the shoes of departed senior Justin Worley. The Volunteers already got a taste of that with dual-threat signal caller Joshua Dobbs, who scored three touchdowns (two on the ground) in a TaxSlayer Bowl victory against Iowa. Dobbs looks like the real deal, and if he can emulate his postseason play, he’ll be the final piece in what could be a very scary offense. Oklahoma meanwhile needs a quarterback to step up and not have one to be forced up. Baker Mayfield seems like the choice to start the season, but he could have a very quick hook in the Sooners’ second game. A trip to Neyland Stadium could be Mayfield’s last – and first – shot. This will be his first chance to really earn the starting job.

Prediction: This year will be far closer than last year’s 24-point Oklahoma victory. Neyland Stadium will be rocking in the first big-time game for the up-and-coming Volunteers. It’ll be a test for both teams. Is Tennessee ready to compete for an SEC title? Is Oklahoma truly a dark-horse championship candidate? Neither questioned will be answered by halftime, and there’s a chance that the end of the game will answer neither. By the end of the game though, Mayfield’s job as the starting quarterback will be on shaky ground. A couple of picks, including one in the fourth quarter, put Oklahoma on the losing end. The Sooners mount a late charge on their final possession but fall just short. Tennessee walks away with its biggest home win in two seasons, 31-23.

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