September 10, 2010
Breaking down the second Saturday's big intersectional tilts: Oregon at Tennessee.
• Miles traveled. A whopping 2,680 from Eugene to Knoxville, or a 39-hour drive through the Rockies and across the Great Plains for flightless Duck fans, on a route that essentially follows the old Oregon Trail. Of course, the same route took their forefathers four to six months before the railroads, and that's just the few that survived cholera, scurvy, hypothermia, Indian attacks, shootings, lightning strikes, animal kicks, alien abductions and (of course) dysentery along the way. And they were grateful, you day-glo, carbon-wearing pansies.
• Respect the decibels. Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz implored Neyland Stadium to be the Vols' "12th Man," etc. Oregon coach Chip Kelly was concerned enough with the combined lung capacity of 102,000 lubricated partisans and a persistent brass section to start blaring "Rocky Top" during practice as early as Tuesday. Duck running back LaMichael James tipped his cap to what a "big deal" it is to play in front of 100,000 in the SEC. But the bigger concern is the Southern heat: Oregon spent much of the week practicing in its indoor facility, which was allegedly hotter and muggier than balmy Eugene at large thanks to the humidifying effects of some timely rain.
• Of course you know, this means war. The Ducks and Vols have never played under any circumstances – no bowl games, no pre-war home-and-homes, nothing – but since conference pride never sleeps, Oregon can extend Pac-10 bragging rights as one of only two conferences (along with the Big East) with a winning record against the SEC (currently at 11-9 since 2000) over the last decade. In fact, the Pac-10 is the only conference that finished at least .500 against every other conference from 2000-09, and stands a chance to tip the scales the Pac-10's way in SEC stadiums, where West-Coasters were 5-5. That's bad enough from an SEC perspective, but the stakes are even higher under the circumstances: Anything that Lane Kiffin can potentially lord over his former employers must not stand.
No, Bryce Brown didn't land at Oregon, and was never expected to. Just imagine it, though.
• Advantage, underdog: Oregon's sophomore quarterback, Darron Thomas, is making his first road start in a hostile environment, against an athletic defense that can match up pound-for-pound with anything he'll see in the Pac-10, with the exception of USC. As green as the Vols are in key places, the latent talent on hand always allows for a little optimism: Before we see them against a real, live defense, it's still possible that quarterback Matt Simms and a deep (if unaccomplished) group of backs and receivers will turn out to be pretty good under new management. And new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a former Oregon linebacker, wrapped up Kelly's spread option in a blanket and beat it to death in last year's opener at Boise State, creating the thick fog of frustration that led to this.
• Meanwhile, back in reality. The Vols were on more solid footing at this time last year, when they were taken down at home by UCLA – the same Bruins that went on to finish eighth in the conference Oregon won outright with essentially the same group of players rolling into Neyland on Saturday. The frightening array of speed the Ducks bring in may be matched only by Florida, and they know how to keep the throttle down until all that's left of the defense is a skid mark. Barring a multi-turnover collapse by Thomas, there's no evidence Tennessee can keep pace, even if the defense remains relatively intact.