There's a lot on the line for the Vols this weekend: possibly, whether right or wrong, Fulmer's job; and definitely the right to stay alive for a trip to the Georgia Dome.
You might say that second one doesn't matter because this team can't possibly beat LSU if they get there, and that might even be true. But, we've heard all year about how young this team is, and just the chance to experience the taste of a SEC Championship game could prove invaluable for guys like Berry, Creer, Vinson, Jones, et al.
So forget the fact that this game is an early kickoff on Jefferson Financial Lincoln Whatever. The utter ginormity of the weekend cannot be ignored. Neither can the fact that, historically, this is the game that Tennessee is most likely to lose en route to an SECCG. Though improved, Kentucky is still Kentucky and Vandy is still Vandy. Arkansas is the team that came to Neyland in 1992 against a #4-ranked Vol team that had beaten Georgia and Florida and was charging for the first SEC East title. That Arkansas team had lost to The Citadel earlier in the season, but it didn't stop them from ruining UT's season, touching off a three-game losing streak that ultimately lead to Johnny Majors' demise. Then there's 1999 and a #2 Tennessee team that went to Fayetteville and choked away a return trip to the BCS championship. And don't forget last year's shellacking that potentially kept the Vols from a BCS bowl bid.
Those are the Hogs' only three wins in 15 tries against Tennessee. Each one was a season-changer. Like I said, ginormous. I know, you're still thinking, "Yeahbut, this is the same Arkansas that fell apart against Alabama and, to a lesser degree, Auburn. Didn't they get killed by Kentucky? Didn't they struggle against Chattanooga, for chrissakes? Isn't the brilliance of McFadden and Jones canceled by the ineptitude of Nutt and Dick? What could we possibly have to fear?"
Here's your answer:
The horror... THE HORROR!
Arkansas' rush offense v. Tennessee's rush defense, in terms of per-game averages, and digestible table form:
|Arky's offense gets:||49||316||6.44||2.8||13.8||9.1||3.4|
|UT's defense gives up:||37||168||4.55||1.3||8.8||5.7||1.5|
Yes, that's real. Arkansas averages 316 yards per game. Yes, they require an insane amount of carries to do it, but they have an insane amount of running backs to split carries between, and that 6.4 average is scary. I don't like those last two columns, either -- that's nine 10-yard runs and over three 20-yard runs per game. On average. The Tennessee defensive numbers aren't as bad as I would have guessed, but I'd still be surprised if the Vol D holds this team much below their averages.
Oddly, though, that might be OK. Against Alabama and Kentucky, Arkansas averaged 52 carries for 319.5 and about six yards a pop. Arkansas also lost those two games. The key? Perhaps the fact that Bama and UK only gave up 3 rushing TDs between them. Bend but don't break, anyone?
This might be a good time to warn against hoping for the same kind of effort Auburn put up against Arky: the Tigers held the Hogs to 25 attempts and 67 yards. Arkansas also attempted 27 passes in that game for a grand total of 52 plays run, just three more than the number of rushing plays they normally call. Auburn dominated TOP and out-first-downed the heck out of the Razorbacks that night. It's great if you can do it, but it's only been done once this year, so don't bank on it.
[editor's note, by CornFromAJar] Caveat: much of the preceding was written before the Great Math Wars of '07... fortunately, I had the self-awareness not to try anything formulaic (sorry, Joel!). The point that both Joel and I are trying to make, I think, is that Arkansas is going to run for a lot of yards. There are still ways to beat them, though.
Auburn was an anomaly, Kentucky and Alabama are the blueprint (statistically, FWIW, we fall roughly in between Bama and UK). So how did the Cats and Tide beat Arky?
The horrible... THE HORRIBLE!
This Casey Dick guy? Not a good quarterback. He ranks in the bottom part of the SEC in just about every passing category. In the UK and Bama losses, Dick was well below 50% completions and never got close to 200 yards, with a 1-1 touchdown-interception ratio. He can be efficient: he's got a 1.8-to-1 TD-INT ratio (Ainge is 3-1, Woodson 4-1 for comparison) and was 8/10 for 86 yards and two touchdowns last week against South Carolina. When that stat line belongs to the winning quarterback, you've done something very wrong to lose the game, namely allowed Arkansas to rush for wayyy over their average.
So, keep the Hogs around their average, and allow Casey Dick to make his normal screw-ups, and everything should be fine. But there's one thing the Vols will have to worry about that Kentucky and Alabama didn't...
The x-factors... THE X-FACTORS!
Marcus Monk: remember that guy? The one who caught eight passes for about 140 yards and a couple of TDs against Tennessee last year? After missing most of this season so far, he should be back for Saturday... although he was held out of Tuesday's practice, as was fellow WR Robert Johnson. If those guys are healthy and able to help Arkansas' pass offense, it could be big trouble. Especially if Chavis has his DBs give the huge cushions given to the Alabama and South Carolina receivers when we played them.
Another x-factor: Felix Jones is the #7 kick returner in the nation. And we know how well Tennessee covers kicks.
Tennessee's got an x-factor, too, and I'm referring to the whole offense. It's hard to pin down what the Vol offense really is. There's potential for a good running game, but it tends to be underutilized. There's potential for an explosive passing game, but a bunch of short routes get thrown. When the game is over, will we see that Tennessee was able to grind out some first downs and keep McFadden and Jones off the field, or will the drive chart show a bunch of three-and-outs?
Statistically, other than the pass defense that Joel is worried about, Arkansas seems very similar to Mississippi State -- and they've played similar competition -- so there is potential (there's that word again) for Ainge and Co.
Lots of Thoughts and Some Clouds of Dust
[In the interest of letting no good idea go unstolen, the format of the following is roughly taken from Brian's game previews at MGoBlog. At least I didn't steal the kitty pictures... some things are still sacred.]
Hide all breakables and sharp objects if...
- McFadden and Jones get closer to 400 yards than 300 yards
- We kick to Jones
- Marcus Monk is given a couple of acres of East Tennessee soil to roam around
Get out the clogs and fire up Rocky Top if...
- Cutcliffe sticks to the running game for more than one quarter
- "Good Erik" shows up
- Houston Nutt gets this look on his face:
Fear/paranoia level --9.5/10-- Baseline 5, +1 for '92, +1 for '99, +.5 for '06, +1 for McFadden and Jones, +1 for No, Really, McFadden and Jones, +1 for Potential Monk Career Day, +1 for We Forget to Wake Up for JP Games, -1 for Nutt and Dick, -1 for No, Really, Nutt and Dick.
Desperate need to win level --11/10-- Baseline 5, +5 for Atlanta's On the Line, +1 for I Can't Take Another Season-Ruining Loss to These Guys.
Loss will cause me to: Call for Fulmer to be replaced by the esteemed Houston Nutt, esq.
Win will cause me to: Hastily search eBay for SEC Championship tickets, setting myself up for bitter disappointment in the next two weeks.
And I suppose after all that I have to make a prediction (though it makes me squeamish) so I'll say Tennessee 38, Arkansas 35. Yikes.