NORMAN, Okla. — Lincoln Riley's life has changed plenty since Oklahoma's last encounter with Tennessee.
Riley is no longer the Sooners’ first-year offensive coordinator, becoming the Sooners' head coach in 2017. Since replacing Bob Stoops as OU's head man, he's produced two Heisman Trophy winners and a runner-up. He's led OU to three consecutive College Football Playoff appearances to go with three straight Big 12 titles. And OU's trajectory as a program is positive, to say the least.
The past few years haven’t been as kind to Tennessee.
The Volunteers also made a coaching change since losing to OU in 2015's instant classic in Knoxville, Tennessee. Then-quarterback Baker Mayfield rallied OU from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to propel the Sooners to a double-overtime win. Tennessee’s coach at the time, Butch Jones, didn’t last long following that season.
Enter Jeremy Pruitt, who took over the program after Jones was fired and has built some momentum for the Vols, especially on the recruiting trail.
Tennessee still has an uphill battle ahead of it with a Week 2 trip to Norman and one of the SEC’s notoriously toughest schedules, thanks to its cross-division rivalry with Alabama. Regardless, an upset here for the Vols would be massive for Pruitt and a playoff résumé-building win for the title-hungry Sooners.
• When: Week 2 | Saturday, Sept. 12 (Time and TV, TBA)
• Where: Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman, Okla.
• All-time series: Oklahoma leads 3-1
A look at the Volunteers
• Overview: Tennessee’s 2019 season endured a disastrous start. The Vols lost their season opener to Georgia State and then fell again to BYU the following week.
A front-loaded schedule put Tennessee at 2-5 to start the year before it ran the table to an 8-5 finish. For context, Pruitt’s Vols didn’t face any ranked opponents after their fifth and final loss last Oct. 19.
A six-game winning streak is still a six-game winning streak.
Tennessee returns a talented rushing attack but faces questions in its passing game. Senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano completed 59.1 percent of his 257 passing attempts and threw 16 touchdowns to eight interceptions last season.
To make things trickier on the Tennessee passing game’s recent struggles, the 2019 team’s two-leading receivers — Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway — won't be around after combining to catch 14 of Tennesse's 19 total passing touchdowns last season.
On defense, the Vols have a rising star in sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o, who led the team with 72 tackles last year. He will be especially important to a defensive unit that lost its sacks leader, linebacker Darrell Taylor, who was selected in the second round of this year's NFL draft.
Experience in the trenches on both sides of the football should help Tennessee as it tries to take another step as a program. Tennessee can't afford too many early-season growing pains, however, with matchups against both OU (Sept. 12) and Florida (Sept. 26) in the first month of the season.
• Biggest returning player: Trey Smith will make life difficult for OU’s defense. The offensive tackle-turned-guard is back for his senior season and projects as a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft, according to ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s early rankings.
The 6-foot-6, 325-pound lineman's return is a major boost to what should be a respectable Tennessee offensive line. That unit will make life easier for running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray, who combined for 1,194 yards rushing last season.
• Biggest departure: Jauan Jennings, a 6-foot-3 monster of a receiver, is statistically one of the best pass-catchers in school history. He ranks top five in the program record book for career receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions.
His matriculation to the NFL — he was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2020 NFL Draft — leaves big shoes to fill for the Volunteers’ returning receivers.