Tennessee is a legitimate 13-point favorite in the Southeastern Conference opener at Arkansas on Saturday night. The faster, more experienced Vols are one of the nation's elite teams. Indeed, it would be a true upset if the Hogs were to win. But, it can happen. Here's how.
First, Arkansas must get a little help. A nice start would be for some of those walking wounded in the Tennessee lineup to decide they'd rather be full speed against Florida, the rival that looms next for the Vols. John Henderson's ankle sprain makes him a huge question mark. And, if he can play, that does not bode well for Arkansas' offense line, weak in the opener.
Tennessee also needs to help the Arkansas cause with a less than antiseptic performance. Arkansas' defense has shown an ability to force turnovers in preseason and in the opener. If the Vols commit turnovers, the Hogs have a chance. Will the Vols be nervous in front of Arkansas' record crowd? That would seem unlikely since they play in front of other similar throngs in the SEC. But, it could be a factor since this promises to be a unique atmosphere ... at least unique in Arkansas history.
Here are some of the other things that must happen for Arkansas to win.
1, Arkansas must get better play in the offensive line. There seem to be signs that a turnaround is possible, if not likely. The personal view is that the Hogs' offensive line looked better in an intense, physical set of practices since the UNLV debacle. Mark Bokermann practiced better at right tackle, maybe because it is now obvous that freshman tackle Shawn Andrews is breathing down his neck. Andrews got a lot of snaps this week with the first unit. Line coach Mike Markuson, who was intense and demonstrative this week in practice, promises to find a way to get Andrews in the game. Bokermann and Andrews will likely be matched up against Henderson, if the UT All-American can play. Arkansas expects that Henderson will play. Also, the Hogs must get an improved performance from both Josh Melton at center and Kenny Sandlin at right guard. They should be solid players based on their ability and experience. They did not perform up to their capabilities last week. They were challenged by the coaches in practice this week and seemed to respond.
2, Arkansas must get consistent play from ONE quarterback. The revolving door under center must stop. The Hogs played four quarterbacks in the first half last week. If they can't find one quarterback to settle the offense, they won't be in the game with a team like Tennessee. Ryan Sorahan will start after leading the Hogs' only TD drive in the final two minutes in last week's 14-10 victory. Sorahan got the bulk of the snaps last week. Zak Clark took almost no snaps. Freshman Tarvaris Jackson, the Hogs' strongest passer, got most of the rest of the snaps.
3, The Hogs must improve at fullback. Last week, there were no crushing blocks from the lead blocker in the I-formation. Hence, Brandon Holmes was told he'll play only at tailback from this point forward. He was not the blocker the Hogs need to run the football or protect the quarterback. He also fumbled once and dropped two passes. Sacha Lancaster was returned to fullback early in the week. That's the position he played with decent results in the spring. Lancaster was moved to the defensive line because of depth problems there. Also, linebacker Clarke Moore was moved to fullback, but he is unlikely to get any game snaps. He's still learning the offense. Mark Pierce could start at fullback. He's a true freshman and a nifty runner. But, if the Hogs are to be successful, it will be left to Lancaster to deliver the blocking blows against linebackers trying to fill the gaps. Lancaster is expected to get between 20-25 snaps on offense, and the same number on defense.
4, The Hogs must protect the quarterback. Tennessee led the SEC in sacks last year with 50 for 382 yards in losses. The next closest SEC team was Mississippi State with 31. The Hogs could not protect Robby Hampton last year in Knoxville when the defense and kicking game set up 35 points in the first quarter. It is unlikely that the Hogs can establish a potent running game, but if they protect their quarterback, they might make some yards passing.
5, After saying that the Hogs might not be able to establish their running game, we'll come right back and say that the running game is a huge key to victory. Whether it is by draws, some sort of counter or another kind of misdirection, the Hogs must find a way to keep the Vols off balance with some resemblance of a running game. It is unlikely that the Hogs can line up in their base formation, so they may have to break into a three-wide look to create some seams for the running game.
6, Arkansas can't commit turnovers. It must protect the ball. After losing three fumbles last week, there is little doubt that the Hogs must improve this week. The Vols will punish a team that commits turnovers. Last year, Arkansas was 11th in the SEC in turnover margin, and 97th among the nation's DI programs. If they don't improve in that area, even one of the SEC's best defenses will collapse sooner or later.
7, Defensively, Arkansas must put pressure on Casey Clausen, UT's sophomore quarterback. And, the Hogs must do it without committing too many defenders to the pass rush. Carlos Hall, Raymond House and Sacha Lancaster must get some sacks from the perimeter. Arkansas had only 11 sacks in 11 games last year. And, they got only one in the opener, maintaining last year's average. That must improve or the Hogs will expose their improved cornerbacks to UT's solid receivers.
8, Arkansas must confuse Clausen. That is likely. He has been inadequate in reading defenses in his young college career. He is a true sophomore and has looked sharp only in that huge performance against the Hogs last year. However, he will be seeing John Thompson's defense for the first time. Thompson, the UA defensive coordinator, will probably have some new wrinkles not seen in the Hogs' first two games. The Hogs have plenty of talented cover men in the secondary, which will allow more blitzes. If the Hogs can confuse Clausen, the Hogs have a chance to win the game.
9, Arkansas must stop UT's running game. The Vols don't possess the same power that they've had the last two years. They are more of a sweep team than a straightaway power team. But, they are still solid in the running game. They will test the Hogs ability to play wide on sweeps. And, they will fake sweeps and counter with screen passes to the opposite side. So, the Hogs must not only protect wide on sweeps, but keep someone at home against the variety of screens in the UT offense. It will be a true test for an Arkansas defense that is a little light. Arkansas' superb linebackers, Jermaine Petty and Caleb Miller, must play solid. They were more than adequate in the opener. If they step up against UT, the Hogs have a chance to win. If they are blocked, or tricked into wrong angles, it will be a long night for the Hogs.
10, The Hogs must be perfect in the kicking game. They seem to be improving every week since that nightmare in Knoxville last season. However, there is still concern. They did not try a field goal in the opener. And, they allowed one long punt return. There are also worries about the health of punter Richie Butler. He was less than full speed this week in practice. Coaches said he stretched some muscles in a 10-punt effort in the opener. It will be a good sign if he doesn't get as many snaps this week.
10, The Hogs need an outstanding crowd. No doubt, Arkansas fans will respond. But, there must be a spark. If the Hogs don't perform at a better level than they did against UNLV, the fans will not be a factor. If the Hogs can make an exciting play, the fans will produce something to behold. The atmosphere should be spectacular. Over 72,000 tickets have been sold for the grand opening of newly expanded and rennovated Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
These are my keys to victory for the Razorbacks. This is scheduled to be a regular feature the night before all games. Please list your keys to victory on the Insider board, and I'll respond.
Thanks, Clay Henry