Keys to the game: Oklahoma

Tennessee suits up against Oklahoma Saturday night in one of the biggest non-conference matchups for the Vols in recent memory. The keys to a Team 119 victory:

It’s the game Tennessee fans have circled on the schedule ever since last season’s 34-10 loss in Norman.

Oklahoma pulled away from the Vols in a 24-point victory, but this season Butch Jones’ team feels much more confident it can match up, and the fan base is salivating for a win on the big stage. Playing in the comfy confines of Neyland Stadium in what is sure to be an electric atmosphere, Jones’ roster is one year older and seems ready to handle a physical Sooners defense led by outside linebacker Eric Striker.

Both teams enter Saturday’s contest in the Top 25 — Oklahoma at No. 19 and Tennessee at No. 23 — and Tennessee is hoping to knock off a ranked team in a non-conference game for the first time since a decisive victory over Cal in 2006.

The Vols can do just that by winning three key phases of the game:

1. Deflate the Air Raid:

This will be the biggest road game of Baker Mayfield’s college career. The former Texas Tech walk-on is comfortable in Oklahoma’s new Air Raid system due to his time at Tech, and it will be up to Tennessee to disrupt Mayfield early to not allow him to get into a rhythm. That starts up front, where freshmen studs Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle will be asked to step into the rotation and produce in the duo’s first home game at Tennessee. The Vols want to keep the crowd engaged while not letting Mayfield build confidence. With defensive tackle Danny O’Brien suspended, it’s paramount McKenzie and Tuttle give their team solid production and pressure all night to complement likely starters Kendal Vickers and Owen Williams.

2. Strike out Striker

Eric Striker had some less-than-flattering comments about Tennessee’s running back corps and the SEC earlier in the week. If you’re Oklahoma, you like the confidence and chip on the shoulder Striker provides the defense as it hits the road. If you’re Tennessee, you have to take it personally, and the Hurd-Striker matchup will be an interesting subplot to this game. Oklahoma’s defensive star had six total tackles and lived in the backfield in last year’s tilt. Tennessee is going to have to force someone else to beat them this time around.

3. DB Bounce-back

It’s all the Vols’ defense has heard this week. After surrendering more than 400 yards in the air to Bowling Green last week, everyone from ESPN to Earl in accounting questioned whether the secondary can get it done. Junior Cameron Sutton is a lockdown corner, but opposite him and in the nickel there are real question marks. Emmanuel Moseley played well at times last week but also was burned on a fourth down and subsequent touchdown. Malik Foreman is still a work in progress at the nickel. Despite it all, defensive coordinator John Jancek said this week he’s still extremely confident in his unit that finished No. 25 in passing defense last season.


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