Rarely is a Week 3 game with a 21-point spread deemed high stakes for the favored team. But that’s exactly what Oklahoma vs Tennessee is for Sooners head coach Bob Stoops.
Oklahoma is a three-touchdown favorite for a reason. Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is still in the early phases of his “brick-by-brick” rebuilding project–a project at least five years overdue. He played 21 true freshmen in the Vols’ season-opening rout of Utah State.
Indeed, this Tennessee team is young. It’s not lacking for talent by any measure, but inexperience is rarely a quality conducive to going into one of the most hostile environments in college football and stealing a win.
Conversely, Stoops is rolling with a veteran-laden squad projected to win both the Big 12 Conference championship, as well as a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
On paper, this is a pretty sizable mismatch. Tennessee is in just its third game with a completely rebuilt offensive line, a critical element that Oklahoma’s experienced front seven could and probably will exploit. The young Vols defense must also contend with the torrid pace and variety of looks the Sooners’ spread offense brings.
The final score must reflect that mismatch in order for Stoops to avoid a groundswell of grief that could reflect in his team’s championship aspirations.
Before the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, top teams were virtually encouraged to run up the score when they had the opportunity. “Style points” was the short name given to this practice, but that title doesn’t accurately describe what it really was: “Win by a lot so sportswriters who didn’t actually see your team play but did read the box score will vote for you when determining your championship fate at season’s end.”
Some of that still existed in the BCS era, though wasn’t quite as prevalent. With the advent of a new championship system, no one is exactly sure what criteria will shape the four-team Playoff. At least one certainty, however, is that contenders must impress those charged with choosing the field of four.
Are marquee wins going to impress the selection committee? Maybe winning by huge margins. Since the litmus is not yet clearly defined, teams including Oklahoma must cover all their bases–especially teams like Oklahoma.
The Sooners–and the rest of the Big 12–lack the 13th game the rest of the Power 5 is afforded with their conference championship games. Thus, every win Oklahoma piles up in the regular season has to be meaningful.
Moreover, Oklahoma vs Tennessee is a prime opportunity for Stoops to reaffirm his stance on the SEC.
Stoops’ distaste for media-led SEC fawning is well documented and unambiguous. That doesn’t make him any different than any number of others unafraid of standing up to sometimes over-the-top rhetoric about the most revered conference in the land.
What separates Stoops is that he has the cachet to back up his tough talk on the SEC. In January, he reclaimed the Big Game Bob moniker when his team ran circles around the SEC’s most prestigious program.
It did so in SEC Country, no less. The Sugar Bowl win over Alabama both ended the 2013 season on the highest of high notes for the Sooners, and also renewed an energy lacking in Norman in recent years.
Oklahoma is often a preseason pick to compete for the national championship; this year was no deviation from the norm. But the way it ended last season puts some conviction behind the ringing endorsements pundits have given this team.
Should Tennessee go into Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium and take Oklahoma to the brink, the negativity Stoops has worked to dispel will come flooding back.
The Vols aren’t coming into Norman disinterested, as Alabama head coach Nick Saban contended of his team’s Sugar Bowl loss.
Nick Saban said playing OU last year had to convince team "getting them to try to play in consolation game"
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 22, 2014
This is arguably the most marquee matchup of the brief Jones era–and Jones-coached Tennessee teams have successfully played the role of championship spoiler before.
Oklahoma can leave no doubt. The pressure is on the Sooners to avoid any semblance of a letdown.