It's the last chance for Derek Dooley to earn a big win before 2012. If the Vols lose - as they are expected to and as they have done against each of the other five Top 10 teams they've faced in Dooley's first two seasons - we'll turn our attention to bowl eligibility, and if we get there, the chance for Tyler Bray and the Vols to make a statement as they head toward next season. Maybe the Vols will get a Florida State or Miami in the Music City Bowl to add some name value to that game, maybe they won't.
But before all that, it's one final chance for the big upset - the win that's gotten away in the second half or at the end every single time. The win you can point to when questions arise, especially if it comes without Tyler Bray. The win you can believe in.
An optimist - that's me - would look at this game and tell you that the Vols probably have a better chance to win than they did against the Oregons, LSUs, and Alabamas of the world. I think right now we're a little unsure if this Arkansas team goes with that group - capable of winning it all - or the SEC East teams that have also found a way to get the best of the Vols in more competitive affairs.
A realist would say that Arkansas is somewhere right in the middle - not quite as good as that first group, but definitely better than the second - and either way, they'll put an offense on the field that Tennessee really hasn't seen. And a pessimist would say that because the wounded Vols lack the offensive firepower to keep pace, this game - just like all the other big ones - is really just a matter of time. The Vols may fight...but in the end, why will the outcome be any different?
The real crime here is the shootout we were denied. If Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter were in uniform on Saturday, this game would scream, "first one to 50." But with Justin Worley in his third start? It's not really fair to ask him to keep pace.
But hey, let's ask anyway.
When Tennessee has the ball...
There's no real point in speculating on what Justin Worley will do; while the MTSU performance was very encouraging, that was MTSU. Hopefully a significant percentage of what happened against South Carolina was nerves. And we know the Vols can't run the ball.
So the best question to ask here concerns how good Arkansas really is on defense. The answer before last week was definitely, "not very". My hope would be that South Carolina without Garcia and Lattimore simply isn't very good, and therefore, Arkansas' defense hasn't actually improved.
In the SEC, the Hogs are 8th in scoring defense, 9th in pass defense, and 9th in total defense. They're also 9th in rush defense, but again, if we can't run on MTSU, no sense entertaining it here. I'd love to be wrong.
The problem is, only Troy and their 63 pass attempts really torched Arkansas' secondary. Troy went for 373 through the air, but the rest of the teams that had passing success against the Razorbacks were also effective on the ground. A.J. McCarron went 15 of 20 for 200 yards with 2 TDs and 0 INTs, which is exactly the sort of performance you want from the quarterback of the team with Trent Richardson on it. Texas A&M threw for 247 but also ran for 381 (!). The most interesting example is Vanderbilt, who ran for 222 and passed for 240 against Arkansas just two weeks ago.
Opportunities have been there for every other offense against this Arkansas defense. Will they be there for Justin Worley and the Vols even if UT can't run?
If not, you have to hope Tennessee's defense can limit Arkansas' opportunities...
When Arkansas has the ball...
MTSU averages 270 passing yards per game. They got 133 against the Vols. Georgia averages 253 per game. They got 227 against the Vols. Cincinnati averages 231 yards per game. They got 230 against the Vols.
Point being, the best passing teams on UT's schedule haven't gone off against the Vols. We assume Tennessee struggles against the pass game because we only have five interceptions on the year, and because there are images of the Vols getting beat deep in one-on-one coverage sprinkled throughout the year.
And yet, Tennessee is 16th nationally against the pass.
Some of our bad memories belong to Marsalis Teague, who may not even seen the field on Saturday. But most of them came in games where Tennessee sold out against the run and took their chances getting beat deep. What Justin Wilcox drew up against Georgia, LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina worked pretty well considering the talent and experience gap that still exists in Knoxville. The Vol defense did a good job taking away Isaiah Crowell, LSU's running backs, and Trent Richardson, and played well enough to win against Carolina.
So against Arkansas, where it at least appears to be less important to sell out against the run, could Tennessee have better success against the pass? Could the Vol defense play better than many of us are expecting on Saturday?
The answer, as with Worley, is that we simply don't know. Arkansas - home of the 8th best passing attack in the nation - may go for more than the 318.7 yards per game they're averaging, especially against a Tennessee team that struggles so mightily to get to the quarterback. While this game will be a matchup of the SEC's two best receivers in Da'Rick Rogers and Jarius Wright, the Hogs have plenty of other weapons as well.
But if Wilcox continues to consistently draw up a good scheme, maybe the Vol defense can surprise. And maybe Justin Worley will settle in against an Arkansas defense that really isn't as strong as anything the Vols have seen from the rest of the league this year. The Vols are 0-5 in the SEC this year and have played the five best defenses in the league.
We're due a break and all, and this is our last chance to really get it this season. You have to buy in to a lot of what we just haven't seen going right on Saturday - Worley playing well on the road against a quality opponent, the Vol defense stepping up against a team that will throw it better than any they've seen - and that's all assuming another disaster in the ground game. Maybe we'll surprise there. Maybe Arkansas - still alive in the championship conversation - will be thinking about that instead of thinking about us. Maybe they're due a loss after near misses against Vandy and Ole Miss.
It's a lot of maybes and a lot of unknowns. If it's not now, it'll have to be next year. It's one final hail mary to get Dooley's big win.
But knowing the Vols, they'll at least make it interesting in the first half. From there? We want so badly to believe it...but we'll need to see it first.