College Football: Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Tennessee Volunteers Preview
College football is all about expectations, and if we ever need a reminder of how cyclical things are in college football, we need look no further than this week's match-up between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Tennessee Volunteers in Fayetteville.
This week, I was thinking back to when I was in Knoxville for the Hogs' 41-38 six-overtime loss in 2002. I was riding away from the stadium with some friends who were Tennessee fans who taught me a lot about expectations that evening.
As a Hog fan, our expectations were low enough that I felt pretty good about a close loss to a national power like Tennessee in their house. On the other hand, my friends were livid that Tennessee would let themselves be pushed to six overtimes by such a lowly team as Arkansas.
I was shocked. They had won one of the best games I'd ever seen, but they expected more.
Nine years later, the script has been flipped. It is now Arkansas who is ranked and competing for championships, while Tennessee has yet to win a conference game.
I imagine those same friends are just hoping to stay close, while Arkansas fans would like to see this one salted away by the second quarter.
Here are some keys to watch for when the two play this weekend.
For most of Arkansas' time in the SEC, they have been in the position of the hunter, hoping to occasionally catch one of the dominant teams in the conference off-guard.
Low expectations and mediocre results have led to a nothing-to-lose, low-pressure environment for much of the last decade if you are an Arkansas football fan. Under Bobby Petrino, that has changed.
Arkansas is now mentioned in the upper tier of SEC football teams, and as a result, they are now often in the position of being the hunted instead of the hunter. Every team gets up for a chance to beat a top-10 team. For a team like Tennessee, who has very little left to play for, it could save its season by knocking off the Hogs in Fayetteville.
Additionally, after the events of last weekend, Arkansas is starting to hear its name thrown out as a dark horse national championship contender. Can the Razorbacks handle the pressure of being in the hunt for a championship, or will they begin to tighten up under the pressure?
Protecting Tyler Wilson
In spite of the fact that Arkansas is off to its best start during the Bobby Petrino era, the season has been a grind up to this point, and much of this can be attributed to the inexperienced offensive line.
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson has spent much of his time running for his life from opposing defenses. So, going into the the Hogs' game against South Carolina, there was more than a little concern for how that offensive line would hold up against the vaunted Gamecock defense.
Better blocking, combined with a well-timed screen passing game and moving Tyler Wilson out of the pocket, kept Wilson off his back for most of the evening.
There has never been any doubt that Arkansas possesses a talented offensive line, and maybe, just maybe, they are now getting the experience they need in order to become a more effective unit. There is reason for optimism, as pass protection and the run game both seem to be improving every week.
Continued Improvement of the Running Game
No one would confuse Arkansas for a run-first ball team, but the Razorbacks continue to move ever closer to being a balanced offense. One needs to look no further than the 2010 edition of the Razorbacks to see what Bobby Petrino can do with a balanced offense.
Arkansas should beat Tennessee even if they decide to throw on every single down, but in order to win the big games coming up, Arkansas needs to continue to improve in the run game. If Arkansas can get off to a controlling lead early in the game, look for the Hogs to be stubborn with the run to not only run clock, but to prepare for Mississippi State and LSU.
Arkansas seemed to be closer to figuring out the ideal rotation for Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Broderick Green on Saturday night and will look for more of the same this week against the Volunteers.
Arkansas had by far its best defensive performance of the season on Saturday against South Carolina, and it will be important for them to pick up where they left off this week against Tennessee.
South Carolina is no offensive juggernaut, but neither is Tennessee, who ranks 96th in the nation in scoring offense.
It sounds as though Tyler Bray will not be back this week, which means freshman Justin Worley will get his third start of the season. Tennessee has not thrown for more than 151 yards in a game since Bray was injured, which means the Volunteers will be relying on their fairly pedestrian running game for production against the Hogs.
Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette dominated South Carolina with three sacks and the Hogs defense created three turnovers. This unit has not been consistent at any point this season, so it will be critical to see if they can put together back-to-back strong performances.
Last week, against South Carolina was the first time all season that the Arkansas offense seemed to click the way Arkansas fans have grown accustomed to, and the defense began to play the way they were expected to leading into the season.
If this Arkansas team has proven to be anything this season, it is inconsistent, but there is reason to believe the Razorbacks may have found their stride. Add to that the fact that the game is a night game in Fayetteville, and it seems that this game stacks up nicely for the Razorbacks.
I believe the defense will continue to shine as Jake Bequette dominates for a second straight week, having now finally returned to form after suffering a hamstring injury earlier in the season.
Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton should be able to get separation in the secondary, and Dennis Johnson will continue to pace the running game for the Hogs.