Tennessee looks to end skid at Arkansas
Both Tennessee and Arkansas are 2-3 overall and in the Southeastern Conference heading into their Saturday game in Fayetteville, Ark. Yet the perception of both is roughly 180 degrees removed from preseason expectations.
The Volunteers were ranked No. 14 after opening with wins at South Carolina and at home against Missouri. Their fans believed they were ready to go up against the SEC’s best. Three straight blowout losses to Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama mean a 13th straight year that Tennessee won’t contend for a conference title.
The Razorbacks were expected to be the conference’s second-worst team, ahead of only Vanderbilt. The hiring of career assistant Sam Pittman to replace fired coach Chad Morris, plus a lowly rated recruiting class, didn’t exactly move the needle.
But Arkansas has been much better than most expected. A controversial call probably kept the Razorbacks from winning at Auburn, and Arkansas has been surprisingly competitive. Its defense slowed down Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense that has rung up huge numbers against nearly everyone else.
On paper, the Razorbacks should match up well with a Volunteers offense that has struggled not only to move the ball, but also to hold on to it. Yet Pittman is being careful to minimize his team’s apparent advantage in that clash.
“They have a very talented, huge offensive line,” Pittman said. “They have two talented (running) backs and a veteran quarterback.”
Problem is, aside from Eric Gray, none of those entities is living up to the billing. Gray has rushed for 355 yards in five games, numbers that don’t reflect how hard he runs. Ty Chandler has added 275 yards on the ground but hasn’t had a big impact.
The offensive line hasn’t gotten the job done lately despite its experience and skill, which has made things harder for quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. The senior is completing 61.5 percent of his passes but has ceded two pick-sixes and a strip-sack touchdown during Tennessee’s recent skid.
Third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt, who is starting to come under fire from a demanding fan base, gave Guarantano and freshman Harrison Bailey equal reps during last week’s off week. Although Guarantano is expected to remain the starter, Pruitt wanted to give others some practice opportunities.
“We went back to fall camp,” he said. “We worked very hard just on ourselves and the fundamental parts of getting back to the basics. I think it was very good for a lot of players in our program.”
Since leading 21-17 at halftime against Georgia on Oct. 10, the Volunteers have been outscored 109-24. The inability to convert on third down or keep opponents from doing the same, combined with breakdowns in discipline, have been deadly.
Meanwhile, Arkansas has used the play of Florida transfer Feleipe Franks to fuel its offense. Franks has completed nearly two-thirds of his passes for 1,213 yards with an 11-3 touchdown-interception ratio.
“He has as strong an arm as anyone in our conference,” Pruitt said.
The Razorbacks have also constructed a defense that takes the ball away with consistency. They rank second in the nation with 10 interceptions, led by Hudson Clark’s three, and they are tied for third in the country with 13 total takeaways.
–Field Level Media