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SCOUTING THE OPPONENT: Oklahoma

It’s been a particularly unusual college football offseason, but with the recent news that Tennessee players will return to campus this month and start voluntary workouts on June 8, there’s real optimism that a season will still happen despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we do each year, here’s a brief snapshot of Tennessee’s 12 opponents for the fall. We continue the preseason preview with a look at the Oklahoma Sooners.

AT OKLAHOMA — Sept. 12

2019 Record: 12-2

Head Coach: Lincoln Riley

2020 OUTLOOK

The Sooners made the College Football Playoff for the third-straight season last fall — reaching the sport’s pinnacle postseason tourney every year under wunderkind offensive head coach Lincoln Riley.

Expectations are no different this fall, despite Oklahoma having to replace another productive quarterback, a slew of wideouts including a first-rounder and its No. 2 tailback, which transferred to Ohio State. In fact, OU ranks No. 103 in returning offensive production, per ESPN's Bill Connelly.

With Jalen Hurts off to the NFL, Riley is set to unleash a quarterback he recruited — likely former 5-star Spencer Rattler. The redshirt freshman mostly watched last season, but he is an electric talent who most expect to “beat out” Tanner Mordecai, Hurts’ backup in 2019, for the job.

The loss of explosive wideout CeeDee Lamb stings (62 catches for 1,237 yards and 14 touchdowns), but Lamb’s departure hurts even more since former 5-star recruits Jadon Haselwood (injured) and Trejan Bridges (reportedly suspended) won’t be available for much of the season.

Still, the Sooners aren’t bereft of talent on offense — at receiver or otherwise. They return their entire starting offensive line (including several potential all-conference guys) and top tailback Kennedy Brooks, who averaged 6.52 yards per carry last season. The receiver position still has playmakers, too, with former 5-star recruit Theo Wease is expected to make a jump in Year 2, while Charleston Rambo (43 catches and five touchdowns) is back and Theo Howard transferred in from UCLA. Freshman Marvin Mims should compete for early snaps as well.

But scoring points has never been a problem for Riley’s Sooners. In fact, they actually averaged more yards per play (7.96 to 7.89) than LSU’s historic unit last season. It’s getting consistent stops that has been OU’s issue.

In Year 1 under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, Oklahoma actually made some real improvements, with linebacker Kenneth Murray leading the way with a strong junior season. The Sooners dropped their points per game allowed by six points (and that’s still with getting torched for 63 points by LSU in the Peach Bowl) and improved their yards per play allowed to 5.63, down from 6.1 the season prior. They even led the Big 12 in rush defense.

But much like the offensive side of the ball, there’s lots of names (and production) to replace. Murray is gone, as is massive nose tackle Neville Gallomore and all-conference corner Parnell Motley. Other likely starters could miss the beginning of the year due to the reported suspensions, including end Ronnie Perkins, who was second on the team in sacks in 2019.

The Sooners did sign several JUCO defensive lineman in their Top 10 class last cycle, hoping Perrion Winfrey and Josh Ellison can be instant impact performers. Also, former blue-chip recruit Caleb Kelly returns at linebacker after missing most of 2019 with a knee injury.

2020 SCHEDULE
SEPT. 5 MISSOURI STATE

SEPT. 12

TENNESSEE

SEPT. 19

OPEN

SEP. 26

@ ARMY

OCT. 3

BAYLOR

OCT. 10

TEXAS (DALLAS)

OCT. 17

@ IOWA STATE

OCT. 24

OKLAHOMA STATE

OCT. 31

@ TCU

NOV. 7

@ WEST VIRGINIA

NOV. 14

KANSAS STATE

NOV. 21

KANSAS

NOV. 28

@ TEXAS TECH

NOTABLE NEW ADDITIONS

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Oklahoma returns plenty of depth in its secondary, but the unit was a sieve at times (59th overall pass defense but 105th in allowing explosive plays) and no one (outside of maybe Brendan Radley-Hiles) is guaranteed a starting job. Former in-state product Woodi Washington, a standout at Oakland High, is a candidate to compete for a job this preseason.

2. Despite having thrown just 11 passes in four games during a redshirt season, Rattler enters the 2020 season with the nation’s fourth-best Hesiman Trophy odds. Rattler has never started a game, and while he’s the heavy favorite, hasn’t been named OU’s starting quarterback yet, either. And yet, in a related note, Riley’s last three quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Hurts — either won the trophy or were invited to NYC. They also finished No. 1, No. 1 and No. 2 in passer rating each of those seasons.

3. Not only are the Sooners dealing with a rash of early-season suspensions, OU isn’t starting its voluntary workouts until July 1. If the season starts on time, that’s essentially 3.5 weeks later than many of its CFP hopefuls, as well as Tennessee.

4. Riley is 36-6 in his first three seasons as a head coach — with identical 12-2 finishes. The Sooners have won the Big 12 in all three years, but lost to SEC teams in the CFP Semifinals (Georgia, Alabama, LSU) each season.

5. Once again, Oklahoma is the favorite to win the Big 12 this fall — shooting for its sixth-straight title. But the odds aren’t as stacked as previous season with all the aforementioned question marks. The Sooners’ win total is set at 10.5 and ESPN’s FPI gives them a 15.3% chance to make the playoff again. While rankings vary, the Sooners are a consensus Top 10 team, slotting as high as No. 4 in some polls and No. 8 in others.