When the Tennessee Volunteers host the Arkansas Razorbacks on October 3, 2015, both teams will be able to use one another as a measuring stick for their respective rebuilding efforts. When Butch Jones and Bret Bielema took over for Tennessee and Arkansas respectively, both teams had hit rock bottom in the SEC. The Vols had finished 5-7 for a 3rd straight year in 2012 and the Razorbacks ended with a 4-8 record that same season. A year later, and the Vols had hired Jones and the Razorbacks welcomed in Bielema.
Since then, Jones and Bielema have gone about rebuilding their teams in very different manners. Both, however, have used stellar recruiting classes to springboard their efforts.
Jones and Bielema have both focused on recruiting to restock their rosters and fast-track their rebuilding since taking over at their respective jobs. The 2013 class saw the Vols finish 24th in the country and the Razorbacks 23rd according to 247Sports. A year later, the Vols leaped up to No. 7 overall while Arkansas fell to 29th in the country. The 2015 cycle saw Tennessee move up even further to No. 4 while Arkansas moved back up to No. 23 overall. Both have used an injection of athletic and talented recruits to revitalize their rosters.
Although Bielema failed to win an SEC game his first season and finished 3-9 and Tennessee earned a 4th straight 5-7 season in their first year under Jones, the rebuilding was just beginning for the two SEC teams.
In their second seasons, Bielema and Jones both finally experienced success at their new jobs. Jones overcame a 3-5 start and rode the hot arm (and legs) of quarterback Joshua Dobbs to Tennessee's first bowl game since 2010 and first bowl victory since 2007, finishing the season with a 7-6 record. Likewise, Bielema led the Razorbacks to a 7-6 record and a bowl victory, the team's first since 2011, after losing their first 4 SEC games of the season.
Both the Razorbacks and Vols are receiving a great deal of hype heading into the 2015 season. Both teams will have a coach heading into his pivotal third year at the helm, and both finally have the talent to compete in their respective divisions. The Vols especially are believed to be threats to win the SEC East, and just as many analysts are picking the Razorbacks to play spoiler in the West to teams like Alabama and Auburn.
But when the Vols and Razorbacks face off against each other in 2015, it will be a battle between two teams finally climbing out of the middle of rebuilding and into the midst of becoming relevant again. And both teams have their own philosophies as to how to do so.
Last season, Arkansas had one of the more potent running games in the SEC, riding a two-headed rushing attack to the tune of 218 rushing yards a game. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins led a smash mouth offense and both ran for over 1,100 yards, piling up 12 touchdowns apiece. The Vols, however, implemented a more spread out offense and threw the ball for 224.2 yards a game and attempted the 3rd most passes in the SEC (according to CFB Stats).
Although the Vols now have the talent at running back to compete with any team in the SEC, Jones and his staff will still look to air out the ball and use the pass to set up the run. The Razorbacks will counter with a run game that will use both power and finesse to wear down a defense and set up the play-action passing game. Both defenses will have their hands full guarding two very different offenses.
When the Vols and Razorbacks take the field in Neyland Stadium in early October, there will be more than a game at stake. Both teams have had great expectations heaped upon them before this season, and both finally look ready to emerge from their rebuilding phases and back into relevancy. A loss will leave only unanswered questions for the team on the wrong side of this match-up.