Fair warning: I picked Tennessee to win the SEC East. Most folks are picking Georgia. What happens Saturday in Knoxville will have no bearing on the SEC East standings, seeing as how Oklahoma plays in the Big 12, but what happens Saturday in Knoxville could offer the first sign of how the SEC East will play out.
It has been so long since Tennessee beat anyone of quality — Chris Low of ESPN notes that it has lost 33 of the past 35 games against ranked teams — that nobody’s sure if the Volunteers can actually manage it. At SEC Media Days in July, this correspondent asked Butch Jones if a coach can ever know when/if his team is primed to break through. The first four words of Jones’ response: “That’s a good question.”
Then this: “There has to come a defining moment when everything you’ve been preaching and preaching comes to fruition … There needs to be tangible evidence.”
Off the strength (or weakness) of Tennessee’s opener, such evidence isn’t yet evident. The Vols beat Bowling Green 59-30 but yielded 557 yards. Only nine FBS teams yielded more in Week 1. Bowling Green is a nice mid-major program — it played for the Mid-American championship last season, losing 51-17 to Northern Illinois — but Bowling Green isn’t Oklahoma.
Then again, is Oklahoma still Oklahoma? Last season, the Sooners entered October ranked No. 4 nationally; they were unranked in the final polls, having lost five of their final nine games. Two of the victories came against Iowa State and Kansas, which were awful. OU was routed at home by Baylor and beaten 40-6 by Clemson in the Citrus Bowl.
Still, the Sooners come to K-Town ranked No. 19 to Tennessee’s No. 23 and are a slight road favorite. If the Vols are going to compete for their division title, they need to give the watching world — and themselves — some tangible reason to believe. That evidence could come Saturday. Or it mightn’t come at all.