The perception of this game has fluctuated a good bit the past few months. All offseason it was viewed as a barometer-type game for these two seemingly-on-the-rise programs that many predicted would be ready to compete in their divisions this year. But as Arkansas faltered in losses to Toledo and Texas Tech, Tennessee became a fairly large presumed favorite.
A better effort by the Razorbacks against Texas A&M and a second fourth-quarter meltdown by the Vols on the season, combined with potentially monsoon-like conditions on Saturday, have made this game a little more of a toss-up. Regardless, both teams really need this win.
With the chance of rain at game time standing at around 65%, per Weather.com, the perception is that the Razorbacks could have an edge because they’re known as the more physical, run-oriented team. But the stats simply don’t back that up. Yes, Arkansas has the superior offensive line and backs Alex Collins and Rawleigh Williams III form a nice combo, but the Razorbacks sit at eighth in the SEC in total rushing (186.2 ypg) coming into this game. Tennessee, meanwhile, leads the SEC in rushing attempts and comes into Saturday third in the league with 248 yards per game on the ground.
And while UT’s downfield passing attack has been subpar, the Vols have found some success throwing to the backs and the tight ends. The Vols also lead the SEC in turnover margin (+1.25). I mention those three categories – rushing, short passes and protecting the football – because all three of those are important when the weather is a factor.
But even if the field is dry and the rain holds off, I still think Tennessee is the better overall team. The Razorbacks certainly do some things offensively that will allow them to move the ball, control the time of possession a bit and put some points on the board. Defensively, I’m not as impressed by the Hogs on film. They’re big, but not particularly disruptive on the defensive line. The linebackers and secondary get exposed from time to time, and I think UT holds the overall athletic edge if they can get the ball to their playmakers and get them to the second and third levels of the defense.
I get the trepidation about putting much faith in Tennessee right now. The losses to Oklahoma and Florida were nothing short of colossal meltdowns that had to mess with their psyche.. That’s why I can’t make my pick with a ton of confidence. But speaking of confidence, how can I have any in Bret Bielema and Arkansas at this point? Bielema has yet to win on the road in the SEC, nor win a one-possession game in the conference. Losing to Toledo is also an unforgivable sin for a third-year SEC coach looking to establish his identity.
Tennessee is the better team and has an opponent coming to town that isn’t a proven winner right now. The weather could make it interesting, but there’s not much excuse in this one for the Vols. They really need this win. I think they can find a way to get it.
Pick: Tennessee 31, Arkansas 21
MVP: RB Jalen Hurd
Statistically, the Arkansas run defense is extremely tough – coming in second in the SEC with just 93.7 yards per game given up. Hurd, however, proved against Florida that he can churn out yardage against virtually any caliber of run defense. And if the conditions are poor, Tennessee is going to ride its sophomore back who is rising in the ranks of the best backs in the SEC. I expect Tennessee to look to get him to the outside in this game to avoid some of the interior strength of Arkansas. If he can takes sweeps, screen passes or just bounce it, there should be some opportunities for him to run through and around that defense. Tennessee might also use him to attack the teeth of the Arkansas defense to free up some space for Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and others to get to the edge and put up some big plays that way. Regardless, I expect Hurd to be a key for the Vols if they can pull out the win on Saturday.
The 2015 Sadness Bowl between Arkansas and Tennessee kicks of tonight at 7:00 inside Neyland Stadium and both of these teams are in desperate need of a win. Trying to predict what will happen in this game is tough due to the likelihood of torrential rain throughout the afternoon and on through the evening, but also the fact that neither of these teams have been close to what we expected to see this year. Who does the rain favor, if anyone? Which team can find their identity?
Well, I look at it like this…Arkansas is going to do their thing. They are going to run the ball between the tackles with Alex Collins and Rawleigh Williams, they’ll set up a few play-action shots down the field to Drew Morgan and Hunter Henry, and they’ll play a pretty basic brand of defense designed to limit big plays and get the ball back to their offense.
This means that Tennessee needs understand that this game will be different. Offensively, they will not be allowed to run anywhere close to the 78 plays that they are averaging per game, which means less opportunities to score. Arkansas’ offense will use the clock to their advantage if given the opportunity, so Tennessee will need to take full advantage of any turnovers and/or short fields they are given tonight and put the ball in the end zone. This isn’t a game where Tennessee’s staff and players can afford to wait around in hopes of finding something that works; a matchup, a formation, a play…etc. They need to identify weaknesses in Arkansas’ defensive scheme/personnel and attack them early. Wide runs, safe passes and good execution should be a simple, but productive game plan against an Arkansas defense that isn’t nearly as good as they were a year ago.
Defensively, the Vols have the tools to give Arkansas some trouble. Arkansas’ scheme isn’t difficult, but they run it well. Tennessee needs to sell out to stop the run and force Brandon Allen to complete passes under pressure to his severely depleted receiving corps. Hunter Henry and Drew Morgan are likely to make a play or two in the passing game, but there will be opportunities for Tennessee defenders to deflect and intercept passes tonight. If Tennessee can force Arkansas into 3rd and 5 or more, then they should be able to get off the field with some regularity.
Rain favors the team with the most playmakers, and Tennessee’s backfield is littered with them. The Vols get the train back on the rails tonight.
Pick: Tennessee 34-20
MVP: QB Joshua Dobbs
This won’t be an ordinary game, and Joshua Dobbs thrives when things are a bit hectic. Arkansas knows they have to stop Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, which means that Joshua Dobbs should have the opportunity to keep the ball on numerous occasions and outrun Razorback linebackers to the open field. And as soon as the defenders sink in to stop Dobbs, I think he’ll be able to hit a big play or two down the field in the passing game. I don’t have a numbers prediction for Dobbs, but my guess is that Vol fans will be very glad he was wearing orange when this game is over.
Do not wager on this game. I repeat, do not wager on this game. Neither Arkansas nor Tennessee can be trusted with a lead or in a close game. They’re both coming off disappointing losses and they’re both facing questions about their mental composition. The Razorbacks, despite losses, have started to find their stride a bit the last two weeks. They rushed for over 225 yards against both Texas A&M and Texas Tech – after throwing the ball 53 times in their loss to Toledo, the Razorbacks, offensively, are starting to look like the team we expected to see. Tennessee hasn’t been great against the run this year – they’re allowing over 4 yards per carry defensively, good for 10th in the SEC.
Arkansas will be able to move the ball and control the clock – how much they score will be determined by the Vol defense getting stops in the redzone and on third and fourth down. The middle of Tennessee’s defense, which is likely to feature two true freshmen linebackers, will need to avoid getting sucked into play action or Arkansas will be able to hit a few big plays.
The Razorbacks will play their game – this one comes down to Tennessee’s offense for me. Where is their confidence level? The Razorback rushing defense is just average and Hurd and Co. will get their yards. Can Tennessee take advantage of one of the worst passing defenses I’ve ever seen? That’s the key. The Hogs are allowing 9.1 yards per attempt – for perspective, no SEC team has allowed 9.1 yards per pass attempt since at least 2007. That South Carolina defense the Vols shredded last year? They allowed “just” 7.3 yards per attempt. The 2012 Sunseri “defense” allowed 7.6 yards per attempt. Their passing defense is historically bad. Short routes and the middle of the field should be there for the taking and, when receivers catch the ball, Arkansas hasn’t shown the ability to consistently bring them to the ground.
I expect Dobbs to get going a bit with his legs and completing short routes that receivers stretch into longer plays. He has looked great against bad defenses and Arkansas certainly sits fits that bill. Look for the Vols to somewhat right the ship before a big game with Georgia next week.
Pick: Tennessee 34-28
MVP: QB Joshua Dobbs
Call me crazy, but Dobbs has been stellar in his career against suspect defenses and Arkansas hasn’t been great against mobile quarterbacks. The forecast for rain makes this risky, but short routes and the middle of the field should be there for the taking and Dobbs has been solid on those throws. He also should be able to beat Arkansas to the boundary and down the seam with his legs. A confidence building day from Dobbs would work wonders for the Vol offense and I expect he’ll have plenty of chances to get going against a porous Razorback defense.