Eugene, OR – A pair of high-scoring, undefeated squads are set to square off on Saturday afternoon, as the second-ranked Oregon Ducks play host to the Tennessee Volunteers.
Under the tutelage of first-year head coach Butch Jones, Tennessee's season has gotten off to a soaring start. After dominating FCS foe Austin Peay in the opener with a 45-0 shutout, the Vols followed that up with an equally impressive 52-20 victory over a solid Western Kentucky team last Saturday.
While excited about his team's fast start, Jones knows that he must keep his team in check, especially as its schedule kicks into high gear by playing five ranked teams in the next six games.
"I thought we did make progress in a number of areas last week, in all three phases: offensively, defensively and special teams," Jones said. "I think the (area of concern) that's evident is just our overall depth and the only way that you'll prove that is to develop your players and recruit. This is a concern right now as we continue to move forward and our quality of opponents continue to increase."
Although Oregon said goodbye to Chip Kelly in the offseason, the team has picked up right where it left off by claiming a pair of blowout wins over Nicholls State (66-3) and Virginia (59-10). After starting the campaign No. 3 in the preseason poll, the Ducks have crept up to No. 2, and new coach Mark Helfrich is determined to keep his squad near the top all season long.
"We want to be perfect, great, elite," Mark Helfrich said. "The only way to do this is to get out of your comfort zone in that direction. We had too many dropped passes (against Virginia), too many penalties, too many mistakes, and that is going to happen."
In the only previous meeting between these two programs, Oregon downed the Vols in Knoxville on Sept. 11, 2010, 48-13.
Despite nearly a complete overhaul on the offensive side of the ball from the 2012 season, Tennessee has been a well-oiled machine here in the early going, racking up 414.5 ypg while scoring 48.5 ppg, good for second in the SEC.
Rajion Neal has been the centerpiece of the offense, racking up 215 yards on 31 carries (6.9 ypc) while scoring four touchdowns, including three in the triumph over WKU. Marlin Lane is also heavily-utilized in the running game, gaining 135 yards and three scores on 22 totes (6.1 ypc).
The potent rushing attack means first-year starting quarterback Justin Worley hasn't been asked to do much, throwing for just 246 yards through two games, but he has completed nearly 69 percent of his passes and has tossed four touchdowns against only one interception.
Johnathon Johnson leads the receiving corps with 72 yards. Brendan Downs has just two receptions for four yards, but both catches have been for touchdowns.
The most surprising aspect of this Tennessee squad has been the outstanding play of its defense (10.0 ppg, 302.0 ypg), which is tied for first in the nation with a whopping nine turnovers.
The team has picked off seven passes (five last week against WKU), with Brian Randolph corralling two of them. LaDarrell McNeil and A.J. Johnson are the unit's top tacklers with 11 and 10 stops, respectively, while Jordan Williams has 1.5 sacks.
Oregon has had arguably the most feared offense in the nation over the past several years, and it's been more of the same in 2013 as the team has amassed staggering early-season numbers (62.5 ppg, 664.5 ypg).
Marcus Mariota's Heisman campaign is off to a strong start, as he has thrown for 433 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, while rushing for another 235 yards and three scores. Despite the impressive numbers, the signal caller was lackluster against Virginia last week (14-of-28) and he knows he'll need to tighten things up in the coming weeks.
"I thought we did all right (against Virginia)," Mariota said. "There were some times where we kind of slowed ourselves down with penalties and bad throws. If everything starts to click for us, like those first three or four drives, things will get rolling and I think we're pretty good."
Mariota is aided by one of the nation's most dynamic playmakers in De'Anthony Thomas. The speedy running back has racked up 252 yards (on nearly nine yards per carry) while scoring five times. Byron Marshall (155 yards, TD) is also a valuable asset out of the backfield.
Josh Huff has emerged as Mariota's favorite target in the passing game, reeling in eight balls for 173 yards, while Bralon Addison (five receptions, 96 yards) has stepped up in the red zone with a pair of scores.
Overshadowed by the outstanding play of the offense has been a defensive unit that yields a mere 6.5 ppg.
Derrick Malone is one of the nation's leading tacklers with 23. Tony Washington has been a menace behind the line of scrimmage with 3.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, while Terrance Mitchell, Rodney Hardrick and Dior Mathis have all intercepted passes.