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Vaunted Vols' OL To Test Oregon Front Seven

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Tennessee isn't considered a national contender, but the Vols' vaunted offensive line presents the biggest challenge Oregon has faced thus far and has been clearing plenty of room for Rajion Neal. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.
Tennessee isn't considered a national contender, but the Vols' vaunted offensive line presents the biggest challenge Oregon has faced thus far and has been clearing plenty of room for Rajion Neal. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.

It doesn't often work out this way, but Oregon's non-conference schedule may hold just the right of incline to help the Ducks get where they want to go once the Pac-12 season gets underway.

Oregon opened with the cupcake appearance-fee game, hammering Nicholls State, then took its longest Eastern road trip in nearly 30 years to lay waste to Virginia by a 59-10 tally Saturday. Now, the Ducks host the Tennessee Volunteers, a team that may sit near the bottom in the SEC power rankings, but brings with it a 2-0 record, a stout running game and a defense that leads the SEC in takeaways with nine. Oh, and it's offensive line returns four starters and is regarded as the SEC's best.

Think the Vols offer a little more than Virginia? 

Any notion that Virginia and Tennessee are two sides of the same coin should be forgotten. While Virginia routinely ranks near the bottom of the ACC, the Vols are a middle-of-the-road SEC team with plenty of tradition and talented athletes. Virginia may have had the advantage in that they had Oregon on their home turf in Charlottesville, Va., but the Ducks must contend with more athleticism when the Vols visit Eugene.

On top of that, the Vols welcome new coach Butch Jones, who has been successful at Central Michigan and recently at Cincinnati. No offense to Mike London at Virginia, but Jones' pedigree and Tennessee's rich recruiting territory seem to suggest the Vols are ready to start making noise again in the SEC. Playing the Ducks tough in Eugene would be part of that equation.

Unlike Virginia, Tennessee has a trio of running backs in Rajion Neal (215 yards/4 TDs/6.9 ypc), Marlin Lane (135/3/6.1) and Deanthonie Summerhill (105/0/5.9) who can make the big play. They run behind what many perceive as the best offensive line in the SEC: Four starters returning from 2012, all capable of all-league mention. Virginia had little but its tight ends with which to fight back Saturday as the gap widened.

Tennessee, even at Autzen Stadium, should pose more of a challenge than Virginia, which conversely posed more of a challenge than Nicholls State.

The Ducks are getting a nice, slow rise in the quality of opponents this year, something that should provide them with confidence. Oregon's defensive line and linebackers, who seemed to struggle some against Virginia, will get its most serious test of the season from the Vols. And given the terror of letting Oregon have many possessions, the Vols' ability to run the ball could be a key to keeping Oregon's offense sidelined. 

And therein lies the biggest angle for this game: Tennessee's ability to run the ball versus Oregon's ability to stop the run. If Oregon wins, the Ducks offense will get chances to show off its speed and big-play ability. If Tennessee wins this battle, the Vols control the ball, the clock and ensure play-action success. 

The Ducks did it right in scheduling. They have lined up three non-conference opponents who appear to provide an incremental increase in talent. It wasn't that long ago that Tennessee was a routine player in the SEC championship battles, though many on the West Coast may not remember. Oregon will line up against a team far more its equal in terms of athleticism, speed and general football acumen when it takes on Tennessee this week.

The tests continue for the new head coaches of the Vols and Ducks.