5 Key Questions: Oklahoma Sooners vs. Tennessee Volunteers

In a meta sense, this weekend’s matchup between Oklahoma and Tennessee feels like two programs on converging trajectories.

Now in his third year in Knoxville, UT coach Butch Jones is earning rave reviews for putting the Volunteers back on what appears to be a path to respectability. On the other sideline, Bob Stoops is fighting to keep the Sooners from sliding further down the college football food chain.

Which team stands to jump off-course? Here are five key questions to consider when trying to pick a winner in what Vegas deems a virtual coin flip.

Question 1: How will Tennessee try to contain Joe Mixon?

Mixon offered a few glimpses in his debut of the skills that made him such a coveted recruit. While OU’s running game sputtered, the redshirt freshman did plenty of damage catching the ball out of the backfield, ending the game with 3 receptions for 115 yards and a 76-yard touchdown catch.

UT will have an advantage against the Sooners’ offensive line, which showed significant deterioration against Akron. That might neutralize OU’s running game, but it doesn’t address how the Vols will keep Mixon in check when he comes out of the backfield or motions out wide. Trying to cover him with a linebacker won’t end well for the home team.

Question 2: Will Eric Striker hold up against the run?

OU’s move to a four-man defensive front has thrust Striker into the role of a hybrid defensive end near the line of scrimmage. At just 220 pounds, that leaves him somewhat susceptible against the run.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s bruising ground game rumbled for nearly 400 yards against Bowling Green after adding JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara to the backfield rotation with Jalen Hurd. Paired with quarterback Josh Dobbs’ fleet feet, the Vols force defenses to stay sound by incorporating zone reads into their offensive attack.

Last week, UT found a whole mess of success on sweep plays in which pulling linemen provided convoys of blockers for Hurd and Kamara going around end. It will be up to Striker to avoid getting taken out of those plays, or OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will have to gin up an alternative to his star pass rusher taking on those blockers.

Question 3: Have the Vols shored up their pass defense?

UT gave up 433 yards through the air in its season opener against Bowling Green. Much of that total came on deep shots, with the Vols surrendering nine passing plays of 20 yards or more to the Falcons.

While it’s easy to put the blame on the Vols’ patchwork secondary, the Tennessee coaching staff emphasized in the aftermath that the problems signified total team failures. Whatever the case may be, OU’s array of weapons at the skill positions present an even tougher test this week. Adding running backs Mixon and Samaje Perine to Sterling Shepard, Dede Westbrook, Mark Andrews and the rest of the receiving corps gives OU a multidimensional passing attack that can exploit defenses in just about every way imaginable.

If UT looks like a fire drill against the pass again this week, the Sooners could put up a big number.

Question 4: Can Tennessee get penetration with four rushers?

Consider this a corollary to the previous question.

One way to take some heat off the Vols’ recently toasted cornerbacks would be freeing up safeties and linebackers to help in coverage. Last week, Akron crashed hard against the run versus OU, which the Sooners gladly exploited through the air. Given how bad UT’s cover men looked last week, they would likely meet the same fate.

If the Vols’ talented defensive line can win at the point of attack, defensive coordinator John Jancek might be able loosen things up on the back end.

Question 5: Will Baker Mayfield try to do too much?

Mayfield’s Sooner debut couldn’t have gone much better: 23-33 attempts, 388 yards and 3 touchdowns. Most importantly, zero interceptions. He didn’t force throws and distributed the ball to the wealth of playmakers at his disposal.

Mayfield’s play last Saturday was a far cry from the gunslinging he did in his one season at Texas Tech. However, he’s facing a horse of a far different color from Akron this weekend, and his short playing history indicates that he has a tendency to press in big spots.

A preponderance of picks or fumbles could turn what should be a close game into a blowout in favor of the Vols.