EUGENE, Ore. -- Folks across the country want to know what Oregon's high-powered offense would look like against an "SEC defense," a term that makes folks wretch on the West Coast. Well, they get to see that today in Autzen Stadium as the Ducks face Tennessee, a holder of one of those SEC national titles during the BCS era.
Of course, this isn't Tennessee circa 1998. That was three coaches and a lot of dispiriting losses ago for a proud program that is trying to right itself under new coach Butch Jones, who was at Cincinnati last year.
Tennessee has gone 28-34 since 2008. That's the worst five-year stretch for the program in the modern era.
Still, the Volunteers are not devoid of talent, particularly on the offensive line, which is among the nation's best units. The Vols welcome back four of five starters from 2012 and all four are good. Junior left tackle Antonio Richardson, most particularly, is a beast.
The matchup with the Oregon defensive front is where this game turns.
An oddly tenacious stereotype is that Oregon is small and quick on defense. Er, no. The Ducks are big and athletic. In fact, Oregon's defensive front is as big as any in the country. The two-deep on the defensive line features seven players 6-foot-4 or taller, including three taller than 6-foot-7. The interior tackles go 314, 299, 297 and 296.
Unlike a lot of schools, by the way, Oregon uses accurate heights and weights.
But the question on Oregon's defense is not the line, which is talented and deep. It's at linebacker. There are three new starters. They have played pretty well thus far, but the Vols will offer up the best blocking unit they will face until the visit to Stanford on Nov. 7.
That said, the Vols don't have a lot of skill players. Quarterback Justin Worley isn't terribly mobile, so he's lucky to have a great line in front of him. He'll need a consistent running game because he's not going to light up one of the nation's best secondaries, particularly on the road. He passed for 104 and 142 yards in the first two games, albeit against lesser competition.
On the other side of the ball, it will be interesting to see if quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Oregon passing game take a step forward. The early results have been mixed, with the typically accurate and efficient sophomore missing some passes in the first two games.
Tennessee has switched back to a 4-3 from a 3-4, which is the reverse of what most coaches do when facing a bunch of uptempo, spread offenses like Oregon's. Of course, the Vols are thinking SEC play, not Pac-12. But that might be an issue here in Autzen.
Finally, there's perception. Oregon is a national title contender, one that is favored by four touchdowns. If Oregon takes care of business and wins by that much or more, then mission accomplished. Style points matter in these intersectional games between AQ conferences.
But if the Vols make a game of it and at least keep things close, there will be more than a few chortles down South about SEC superiority -- as in, "The Duckies can't even whip one of our bottom-feeders."