Saturday at 7 p.m. EST the #7 Oregon Ducks take on the unranked Tennessee Volunteers on ESPN 2. The game features the return of Oregon star running back LaMichael James, who last season set the Pac-10 Freshman yards record but missed the opener with a one-game suspension. Tennessee will need to adjust without their top receiver Gerald Jones (hand injury), and rely on more of a smashmouth running back approach with David Oku and co.
Here's a quick rundown of Oregon's offensive starters and strategy. Oregon is coming off of a 72-0 blowout of New Mexico in which quarterback Darron Thomas did well in his first collegiate start. The 6'4 210lb Houston native showed flashes of brilliance last week as well as throughout fall camp by hitting targets such as wide receiver Jeff Maehl, D.J. Davis, and tight end David Paulson. The last decade Oregon has often had a "1a, 1b" approach to the running back position, and 'backup' Kenjon Barner will certainly get his carries. Starting in place of James last week Barner amassed five TD's...in the first half. Oregon did not lose any o-linemen from last season and return a core group of 6 or so guys.
Defensively, the Ducks are looking at an exciting opportunity to play a bonafide SEC offense. Surprisingly New Mexico's offensive line is bigger than Tennessee's, but that's certainly not an indication of effectiveness. Oregon tackles Brandon Bair (6'7, 300) and Zac Clark will need to combine for solid play in the trenches. Star defensive end/linebacker Kenny Rowe also needs to have a good showing, as he is key to both Oregon's run and pass defense. Oregon's linebacker unit is arguably the deepest it has ever been, with veterans Spencer Paysinger, Casey Matthews and Bryson Littlejohn. Mix that in with a group of exciting younger guys like Michael Clay, Boseko Lokombo and Josh Kaddu, and Oregon appears to be set for a long time.
In the secondary senior Talmadge Jackson III will hold down one side of the field, while the 2nd corner spot will likely be rotated between at least Anthony Gildon and Cliff Harris. At the safety spots, last years leading tackler John Boyett and former linebacker Eddie Pleasant will provide both speed and strength to prevent the Volunteers offense from getting comfortable.
To me Oregon's biggest concern should be the kicking game, where neither Rob Beard of Eric Sollis have started a game as placekicker. Neyland Stadium isn't exactly the practice turfs either. Tennessee has a pair of coaches in Justin Willcox and Peter Sirmon who are connected to the Ducks, and they will be as familiar as anybody with what Chip Kelly will draw up for the offense on Saturday. Zone reads, misdirections and intermediate passing plays are Oregon's specialty. Darron Thomas shows the ability to succeed both in the pocket and while scrambling, and hopefully has the talent that Jeremiah Masoli had of finding a third or fourth option when the play breaks down.
All in all, I expect it to be a fun game in Knoxville, but the Volunteers lack of depth and in my opinion the talent difference will both be in Oregon's favor this weekend. Predicted score: Oregon 42, Tennessee 28