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2015 Opponent Look Ahead: Arkansas

brett-bielema

Tennessee vs. Arkansas

When: Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015

Where: Knoxville, Tenn. (Neyland Stadium)

Early line: Tennessee favored by 1 (per Golden Nugget)

Arkansas at a glance:

Head coach: Bret Bielema (10-15 through 2 year at Arkansas)

Conference: SEC

All-time record: 676–451–40

2014 results: 7-6 (2-6 SEC); Beat Texas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl

Returning starters: 14: 8 (offense), 6 (defense)

2014 overview: The Big 10 Bret jokes were flying around everywhere as Arkansas dropped its first five SEC games, bringing Bielema’a overall SEC record to 0-13 in his first two seasons after the Nov. 1 loss to Mississippi.

But there was something different about the 2014 version of the Razorbacks, even as they sat at 4-5 with only non-conference wins over Texas Tech, Nicholls State, UAB and Northern Illinois. An Arkansas team that was blown out multiple times in 2013 was becoming more and more competitive – losing games to Texas A&M, MSU, Alabama and Georgia (all of whom were ranked in the top 10 when they played Arkansas) by an average of less than a touchdown per game.

Close losses don’t cut it in the SEC, however. And Arkansas turned the corner after its bye in early November, resting up for a historic two-game run against LSU and Ole Miss where the Razorbacks would blank both opponents on the way to 17-0 and 30-0 victories against the two top-20 opponents.

A tough 21-14 road loss to Missouri in the regular season finale put a slight damper on the late-season run, but the Razorbacks did enough to gain bowl eligibility, which they took full advantage of, throttling old Southwestern Conference rival Texas in the Longhorns’ home state in a convincing 31-7 win in the Texas Bowl.

Three early questions for the 2015 matchup:

1. Can Tennessee hold up against the Arkansas offensive line?

This will be the best offensive line the Vols have seen to this point in the season and quite possibly the best it will see all year – if not the best it will see in the next couple seasons. The Hogs are loaded on the O-line enough so that Bielema put this group on the cover of the media guide. They’re experienced, big, physical and will pose a huge challenge to Tennessee’s talented defensive front. The tackle duo of Denver Kirkland and former Vol commitment Dan Skipper, especially, will be a great test for Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt and the rest of Tennessee’s edge rushers.

2. Who can establish the run game?

The Razorbacks want to get downhill in the run game, using their offensive line and star duo of 1,000-yard unning backs – Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams – to wear down opposing defenses to control the clock, the field position and give their underrated quarterback, Brandon Allen, opportunities to pick his spots for some big plays as well. Tennessee doesn’t have that kind of personnel overall in the run game, but Arkansas has some question marks on defense, giving the Vols at least a chance to find some success of their own on the ground. Tennessee doesn’t necessarily have to “win” the run game battle to win the game, but the Vols can’t let Arkansas establish it to the point that the Razorbacks control the whole game.

3. Does Tennessee have the speed edge? 

If Arkansas has the physical edge in this game – which seems to at least be the perception – can Tennessee counter that with an edge on overall speed? If Cam Sutton can somewhat neutralize receiver Keon Hatcher, there isn’t a proven pass-catching threat outside of tight end Hunter Henry for Arkansas that really scares you. And on offense, can Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, Pig Howard, Marquez North and others use their athleticism to put up some points on a defense that lost some key players such as Martrell Spaight, Trey Flowers and Darius Philon?

How do we expect it to play out?

I have a really good feeling about the quality of this game. I think it’s going to be a good one – with both teams showing why they’re up-and-comers in the SEC.

Arkansas is going to show its physicality and will push Tennessee back on the defensive line with some regularity, and may get 200+ yards of rushing. Can Tennessee respond? The Vols will need to take advantage of their opportunities, use their speed to get around and over the defense at times, and though Arkansas will break some big runs, Tennessee has to get off the field on defense some too to keep the Razorbacks from fully dictating this game.

This is one of many toss-up games for the Vols in 2015, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a 31-28 type of game that hinges on which team makes the big play, or avoids the big mistake, late.

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