Tennessee is about to get a sense of how far its come — and how far it still has to go.
When Tennessee visits No. 4 Oklahoma on Saturday, the Volunteers will be carrying a 2-0 record into a road game with a top-five team for the second straight season. Last year, the Volunteers got trounced 59-14 at No. 2 Oregon. Now they want to show the lessons learned since that disastrous trip.
“You’re earning the right to win,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “There’s a difference between believing you’re going to win, earning the right to win and hoping to win. We’ve hoped to win too much around here in the past.”
The Vols say they have that belief as they seek their first 3-0 start since 2004.
“We’re expecting to win,” defensive tackle Danny O’Brien said. “I don’t know if last year we had as much positive thought as we do on this team, this young team. Everybody’s expecting to win. We’re not going to go anywhere and expect to lose or expect to play somebody that we don’t think we can beat. We’re all very confident, and we’re ready to go.”
Tennessee is a 20 ½-point underdog against an Oklahoma team that has distinct advantages in experience and size.
Oklahoma starts seven fifth-year seniors, eight if you include kicker Michael Hunnicutt. Tennessee has played 22 true freshmen, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision team. Oklahoma’s starting offensive line averages 321 pounds per man, while Tennessee averages only 273 pounds across its starting defensive line. Oklahoma is 88-5 at home since Bob Stoops took over the program, and Tennessee has lost 19 straight road games against ranked foes.
Jones considers Oklahoma’s program under Stoops an example for his own rebuilding project.
When Stoops began his Oklahoma tenure in 1999, the Sooners hadn’t had a winning season since 1993. Jones, in his second year at Tennessee, is trying to end the Volunteers’ string of four straight losing seasons. Each was his school’s fourth coach in a six-year stretch at the time of his debut season.
“I think Oklahoma’s one of the models,” Jones said. “Coach Stoops has done a tremendous, tremendous job, and that was a program that had so much tradition, and it does, but they were down a little bit, and he came back in and got it back going the right way.”
Stoops turned things around so quickly at Oklahoma that he won a national title in his second season. Jones likely will need more time to get Tennessee competitive again in the Southeastern Conference. But the strides Tennessee has made under Jones are evident to Stoops.
“They are a better football team than they were a year ago,” Stoops said. “They recruited really well the last couple of years. They are 2-0 and have looked really good up to this point.”
The Vols may be better, but they’re also younger. Jones frequently has mentioned this week that about half his players will be participating in their first road game Saturday. He’s interested in seeing how they respond.
“Is the stage too big for them?” Jones said. “Do they embrace the challenge? Do we understand what it takes to play winning football on the road, the mental effort, the mental intensity that it takes? I’m looking forward to seeing how fast we can grow up as a football team, jump the learning curve.”
The Vols believe they’re ready.
“Right now we’re looking at Oklahoma and we’re saying, ‘Yeah, we can win this game,’ ” center Mack Crowder said. “That’s our mindset going into every single game. 3-0 is definitely our goal, and right now we don’t see it (as) too far-fetched.”