The lack of a victory over a quality opponent combined with decisive home setbacks leaves serious questions about the strength of both teams. Additionally, each squad is coming into this contest off a disappointing performance. Arkansas was dominated from the outset against Alabama which scored on an 80-yard TD run to open the game and coasted to an win over the favored Razorbacks. Rutgers scored on the opening kickoff against Tennessee and held a 14-7 lead at half-time over the 41-point favorite Vols. Tennessee won the second half 28-0 for a 35-14 victory, but its inability to rush for at least 100 yards in its second straight outing raised concerns on The Hill to their highest level since the 2000 season when the Vols started 0-3 in the SEC and 2-3 overall. An upset at the hands of Arkansas could be disastrous for a Tennessee team that has upcoming games at Georgia, vs. Alabama, at South Carolina and vs. Miami. Likewise Arkansas faces stiff competition at Auburn, vs. Kentucky and vs. Ole Miss following its game against the Vols.
Arkansas offense vs. Tennessee defense:
This matches the SEC's No. 6 offense (397 total yards per game) against the SEC's No. 3 defense (271 yards per game), but the key competition will be when Arkansas' second-ranked running game (232 yards per game) meets Tennessee's top-ranked rush defense (89.5 yards per contest). Arkansas gets its yards from a number of sources in a backfield that's loaded with running talent. Senior tailback Cedric Cobb is leading the Hogs with 209 yards in 37 carries while quarterback Matt Jones has rushed for 183 yards in 24 attempts for an average of 7.9 yards per attempt. De'Arrius Howard, who UT recruited and almost signed, has 113 yards in 22 carries and Fred Talley, a second-team All-SEC pick last year, has 121 yards in 24 attempts.
When the Hogs take to the air (aka when pigs fly) Richard Smith (eight receptions for 181 yards) is Jones¹ top target, but the Razorbacks passing attack ranks only 10th in the SEC with 37 completions in 78 attempts for only 495 yards in three games. Of course, Arkansas didn¹t need to pass in their blowouts of Boise State and South Florida while they couldn¹t pass effectively against Alabama last week.
The key to this battle is for Tennessee to contain quarterback Matt Jones and force him to become a pocket passer. If he breaks containment, Arkansas receivers will have time to separate from coverage. If the receivers aren't open Jones, 6-6, 215, 4.6, can do plenty of damage off the scramble and move the sticks on critical third downs. Tennessee has to also maintain their run gaps on defense to prevent Cobbs from cutting back against the grain where he's most effective.
Look for Arkansas to test weak side linebacker Keyon Whiteside right away. Whiteside has had an outstanding season in the middle, but has been moved to Will backer to replace fallen starters Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon. Whiteside often struggled while playing on the outside last season. Also drawing a start on the same side at defensive end is Mondre Dickerson who moved from the strong side where he was backing up Omari Hand. Dickerson steps into the starting role in place of Karlton Neal who has had his knee scoped. Likewise Neal filled in for senior starter Constantine Ritzmann who was lost before the season began with season-ending knee surgery.
The Vols right side on defense appears to be in for a serious test especially when it comes to containing Jones.
Tennessee offense vs. Arkansas defense:
The Vols much maligned rushing attack will get another strong test against an Arkansas defense that uses a lot of run blitzes and stunt packages. Tennessee comes into the game ranked a surprising 10th in the conference with 129 yards per game against an Arkansas defense that is surrendering just 114 yards per outing. With Arkansas native Cedric Houston sidelined following thumb surgery, Jabari Davis, who is averaging just 35 yards per game, steps into the void for the Vols. Davis ranks 27th in the conference among individual runners and doesn't have a run longer than 21 yards on the season.
The Razorbacks secondary was hailed by many as the SEC¹s best prior to the season, but Arkansas is currently ranked No. 8 overall in the pass defense category. Of course, it takes more than a good secondary to have a good pass defense and Arkansas has had trouble generating consistent pressure with its front four alone. Expect the Hogs to rely heavily on the blitz against the Vols leaving it's three quality corners (Ahmad Carroll, Lawrence Richardson and Eddie Jackson locked up in man coverage when the Vols elect to spread the field as they did vs. Rutgers.
Tennessee is still awaiting the arrival of a second wide receiver to take some of the load off of Kelley Washington and tight end Jason Witten. With none of UT's young wideouts stepping up to this point the Vols have looked at quarterback James Banks as a pass catcher. If the situation doesn't improve, Washington may have more trouble than usual getting open because Arkansas can afford to provide help on the talented sophomore with the UT's other wideouts locked down in man coverage. The Razorbacks often deploy a rover package which can make pre-snap reads more difficult for Casey Clausen.
Arkansas linebacker Tony Bua (5-11, 205) is small, but very active and is often turned loose to pressure the passer. With safety Ken Hamlin helping on Washington there may be room in the middle for Witten to exploit.
But the real key for Tennessee remains the running game. If the Vols can establish some consistency on the ground, it will open up a world of possibilities with play-action passing against a defense that reacts to the run quickly.
Special teams: Both Arkansas and Tennessee have solid return teams, but the Razorbacks have been better at coverage and pressuring kicks. Additionally, the Vols have too many questions surrounding place-kicking to feel good about a game deciding field goal. Junior transfer Phillip Newman will step in for senior Alex Walls for placements in this game. Walls has missed four in a row and Newman missed his last effort vs. MTSU. True freshman James Wilhoit was a Parade All-American kicker, but is slated for a redshirt this year. Arkansas' Brendan O'Donohoe made all 29 of his extra points last year and nailed 12-of-17 field goal attempts.
Intangibles: The pressure is on and it's going to get a lot worse for one of these programs after Saturday night. Fans in Fayetteville and Knoxville rained down boos during poor performances last week and each of these proud programs is seeking a form of redemption. The Razorbacks have responded well coming off loses in the past and also in revenge games under Houston Nutt.
After losing two in a row to Tennessee, including a 63-20 pasting the last time they were in Knoxville, they figure to enter this contest with maximum motivation. However the Vols have no wiggle room if they want to get back into SEC title contention making this a must-win situation. Coach Phillip Fulmer normally has his teams ready for such showdowns, but after the Florida debacle it's anybody's guess how the Vols will respond.
Summary: This is the last of an annual encounter between these border-state schools that began in 1992. Next year the Razorbacks go into a rotation with Alabama becoming the only annual opponent for UT from the SEC West. Landing the final blow until 2006 is added incentive for two teams that have staged a number of exciting contests i.e. the 1971 Liberty Bowl won by Tennessee 14-13, the 1990 Cotton Bowl won by Tennessee 31-27, Arkansas' 1992 25-24 upset in Knoxville, Arkansas' 1999 28-24 upset and Tennessee's improbable 28-24 comeback win in 1998. The Vols also administered two of the most one-sided defeats in the history of Arkansas football winning by 43 points in the aforementioned 2000 contest and 56-14 in 1996. It seems like this series has produced either a big Tennessee win or down-to-the-wire contest. This is a game that could certainly go either way depending on who gets out to an early lead and is able to generate some momentum and confidence. Tennessee has had two horrible first-half efforts in a row in which it was outscored by Florida and Rutgers by a collective margin of 38-7. With their backs placed squarely against the wall, look for the Vols to start strong in this contest and hang on for a victory.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Arkansas 20