Oregon is nearly a two-touchdown favorite for its visit to Tennessee on Saturday. That seems a bit odd, doesn't it, if you watched much of the Volunteers when they won 152 games and a national title from 1993-2008 under former coach Phillip Fulmer?
But Tennessee has experienced as much upheaval as any program in the country over the past two years. First, Fulmer was pushed out the door and replaced with Lane Kiffin. Some of you may have read this: Kiffin then bolted after a single season for USC, inspiring near-riots in Knoxville. Next, after being rebuffed by a number of higher-profile candidates, Tennessee hired Derek Dooley away from Louisiana Tech. He's the son of SEC coaching legend Vince Dooley, who won a national title at Georgia, and he's in charge of returning the Vols to past glory.
But that ain't happening this year. The roster Dooley inherited doesn't much look like the NFL factory once quarterbacked by the likes of Peyton Manning.
"Everything is new," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, speaking specifically about the Tennessee coaching staff, which has brought in new offensive, defensive and special teams schemes, the nuances of which certainly weren't revealed in a 50-0 beatdown of Tennessee-Martin.
Still, making a cross-country trip to play in the Southeastern humidity in front of more than 100,000 fans isn't an easy task even when the Vols are down. Just ask California. In 2006, a talented Bears team wilted in Tennessee in a 35-18 route that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. More than a few Bears later admitted they got wide-eyed taking in the Neyland Stadium frenzy.
Neyland is no joke. It's going to be loud and rowdy and orange. Lots of orange. And Oregon's sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas will be making it the venue for his first road start.
No matter how cavalier Oregon fans want to be on that -- well, UCLA's Kevin Prince did just fine last year! -- it's an issue until Thomas makes his mark.
"It's still an unknown -- he hasn't played in this environment," Kelly said. "There aren't many stadiums in college football that have 100,000 [fans]. We've got a lot of young guys it's going to be new for."
One of the most interesting statistics coming out of the Ducks blitzkrieg versus New Mexico was zero rushing yards from Thomas. Oregon quarterbacks ALWAYS have rushing yards. By design? No, said Kelly. But it was hard not to wonder if Kelly -- a certifiably tricky guy -- has something up his sleeve.
If Oregon handles the atmosphere in a businesslike way, the Ducks roll. They're just too fast, too experienced and too talented on both sides of the ball for the Volunteers. But the Vols also have enough talent that if the Ducks make mistakes or get distracted by 105,000 screaming Volunteers fans, then things could get interesting.
Oregon didn't punt vs. New Mexico. Kelly said Tuesday that's he's sure that won't be the case in Knoxville. This one, whatever the word coming out of Vegas is, won't be easy.
"We're going to be tested," he said.