On paper the Vols appear to have no chance. They are a 21-point underdog against a team that is 88-5 on its home field in the past 16 seasons. The Sooners do not buy in to the SEC Mystique, as they showed in trouncing Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl last January. Making the challenge steeper still is the fact 47 percent of the Vol travel squad will be playing it first college road game.
Despite the imposing challenge, Tennessee’s players think they have a shot at leaving Norman with a victory. One of the most outspoken is redshirt sophomore nose tackle Danny O’Brien.
“All I’ve been thinking about is winning all week,” he said. “I know that’s the way these guys on our defense are wired, and that’s what’s bringing Tennessee football back: We all expect to win. We all want to win. We don’t accept losing here. I think that’s something the program has been lacking here the last few years but I think we’ve got it back now.
“I dream about winning every night – walking out of the stadium, getting on the plane and to party on the plane. That’s what we want. That’s what we’re striving for. That’s what we’ve worked toward all summer.”
Redshirt junior center Mack Crowder also believes the Vols can win. When asked this week if beating Oklahoma would be a legacy victory, he frowned.
“It probably shouldn’t be because we’re Tennessee and we should be used to winning,” Crowder said. “Beating a team like Oklahoma will probably just put us back on track and give us a little bit more confidence.”
One factor working in Tennessee’s favor is the fact its freshmen are blissfully ignorant of the gap between the Vol program and top-10 programs. They weren’t on the 2011 team that lost 38-7 to No. 1 LSU, 37-6 to No. 2 Alabama and 49-7 to No. 8 Arkansas. They weren’t on the 2012 team that bowed 44-13 to No. 1 Alabama or the 2013 team that fell 59-14 to No. 2 Oregon, 45-10 to No. 1 Alabama, 31-3 to No. 10 Missouri and 55-23 to No. 7 Auburn.
Freshman safety Todd Kelly Jr. is impressed with the fourth-ranked Sooners but not awed by them.
“It’s pretty crazy – just to know we’re playing such a great team,” he said. “We know we’re going to have a test, going into Norman, Oklahoma. They’re an awesome team, and we can’t overlook them. At the same time, we’re a great team, as well, and we’re looking to get the win. Even though they’re a great team, we’re looking to get a win.”
Basically, no one outside of the Vol locker room expects Tennessee to give Oklahoma a competitive game. The 21-point betting line reflects as much. Kelly couldn’t care less.
“It’s still football,” he said with a smile. “You still have to go out and play for 60 minutes. No matter who you’re lining up against it’s still 11 on 11. We just have to go out and play Tennessee football.”
Freshman running back Jalen Hurd expects Saturday night’s outcome to be in doubt entering the final period.
“It’s going to be a four-quarter game, guaranteed,” he said. “We know they’re a great team, so we’re really going to have to bring our A-game and prepare well for this.”
Great team or not, Hurd thinks the Vols have a chance to sink the Sooners.
“It would be amazing,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re preparing every day for that.”
Sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton participated in last year’s lopsided losses to Oregon, Bama, Missouri and Auburn but insists they have no bearing on the Tennessee-Oklahoma shootout. He says this year’s Vol squad has a different mindset than last year’s.
“It’s all about competing, and we preach that every day,” he said. “We just have to go out there and give our all, play with a lot of passion, play with a lot of energy. When we’re clicking on all cylinders we’re a tough team to beat.”
Senior quarterback Justin Worley believes Tennessee can give Oklahoma’s vaunted defense some trouble Saturday night based on the dramatic strides he saw in Games 1 and 2.
“We really cut out our pre-snap penalties,” he said. “We’re staying focused and not getting too antsy up front. We executed well, especially on third down. Third-and-seven or less I think we were 7 for 8 in Week 2, which is pretty darned good. That’s all you can ask for right there.”
Although Oklahoma has the better players, the Vols think they may have the better team. Player after player cites team chemistry as this squad’s greatest strength.
“The most important step is that we’ve bonded well,” Sutton said. “That brotherhood and that camaraderie we have off the field definitely carries over onto the field. We’re a group of guys that want it really bad.”
Knowing few people believe in this team, senior linebacker A.J. Johnson suggested the Vols have developed a fox-hole mentality.
“We’re playing as a family,” he said. “We’re playing for each other and we’re going to play our hardest. We’re playing as a unit – offense, defense, special teams. We’re playing with more confidence. We’re combat ready.”
Crowder thinks the Vols’ team chemistry is strong enough to overcome the fact Oklahoma has the home-field advantage, plus more talent and experience.
“We’re coming together as one, playing together and having the right mindset going into each game,” he said. “We have the talent to win this game. We just have to go out and do it.”