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Suddenly, the Arkansas game becomes one of the most important in Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure

What would the result against the Razorbacks tell us?

Alabama vs Tennessee Photo by /Collegiate Images/Getty Images

I never thought I would be writing this piece before the 2020 season started. Heck, I thought there would be no 2020 season to write about at one point.

But we’re here, and it sure does look like the Tennessee-Arkansas game will be a huge indicator about where Tennessee’s program stands. A game that seemed minimally important when the schedule was released is now a measuring stick that we’re anxiously awaiting.

I’ve made my position pretty clear on why Tennessee fans should not hit the eject button just yet. That would still hold true if Arkansas wins on Saturday.

But you’re kidding yourself if you think there wouldn’t be an effect on morale after a loss like that. Losing to the Alabamas and the Georgias of the world sucks, no doubt about it. It’s understandable though, and there’s really no need to hit the reset button all because you lost to the two most talented teams in the nation who have had multiple years of sustained high level success, while you were busy making the third head coaching change within the decade.

Losing to Arkansas though? That’s a warning siren. That’s a flashing red light. That’s a loss that would make you question the issues beyond the playing field. It would speak to the lack of confidence that players have in the staff—alternatively it could also speak to the lack of confidence that the staff has with each other.

Arkansas is an improved team from last year, there’s no doubt. They’ve gone blow-for-blow with much more talented SEC teams, and they came out victorious against opponents within their same tier (Ole Miss and Mississippi State). But fundamentally, this is a game that Tennessee should win.

Mainly because the Razorbacks’ offense is still a huge impediment on their success. Feleipe Franks (remember him?) is their starter and still has all the limitations he did while at Florida—even if he is a bit better at protecting the ball. The Razorbacks don’t really have a choice but to lean on him, since their run game is abysmal. Part of that is facing good defenses. The majority of it is not having enough talent at both offensive line and running back.

Meaning the Volunteers should not be surrendering near as many points as they did against Georgia, Alabama, even Kentucky. Realistically, they should be holding Arkansas to around the same number of points that they did Missouri.

If that holds true, it’s time for Tennessee’s offense to show once-and-for-all that they can uphold their end of the bargain. There cannot be two interceptions returned for touchdowns. There cannot be absurd fumbles that kill drives. There cannot be inexplicable playcalling decisions that abandon a part of the game you’re having success with. If you want to convince fans that you’re competent, you need to be able to impose your will and at the very least put up enough points to give your defense breathing room.

I’m not expecting a perfect game from Tennessee. I doubt it will by Volunteers by anything more than two scores. But these are not high benchmarks to meet. Getting trounced by a first-year coaching staff who didn’t even get a full offseason to install their system would be an awful result.

It’s time for this staff to right the ship—or at the very least plug up the holes that sprung in the starboard. Taking on any more water could mean you never reach your destination...and your ship sinks to the ocean floor, resting among the failed undertakings before you.