The stage has been set. Like a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, Arkansas will walk off the field with victory or defeat in hand. There’s no denying it: this is the biggest game in Houston Nutt’s tenure at Arkansas. After all, the Razorbacks are 0-3 against the Volunteers when ranked in the Top 25. But it’s only one of those losses Arkansas fans truly remember.
In 1998, Arkansans were still contemplating the unfathomable 8-0 start before we could grasp that a 21-3 lead had disappeared – and with it any shot at an SEC or national title vanished into the mysterious, and all too often disappointing, lore of Razorback football.
But the landscape in 2006 is different. Arkansas has been under the watchful eye of the national media for several weeks. In several online chats yesterday, ESPN football analysts Beano Cook and Mel Kiper, Jr. both discussed how dangerous of a team the Razorbacks are.
Casey Dick is under center. We’re not going to lament this point any longer. Arkansas fans have not been too distracted, at least from what we can tell on the message boards, with Mustain not getting the call. This is a good thing, because with the pressure that comes with being undefeated in the SEC and in control of your own destiny, the fans don’t need to continue to litigate Nutt’s decision. It’s been made. Let’s move on.
But neither the fans nor the quarterback situation really concern us. After all, a ticket to the Arkansas-Tennessee game is hard to come by. ESPN College Gameday will be on the Hill at 9:00 a.m. That’s a long nine hours before kick-off – plenty of time for a few cool ones.
Rather, our concern is coach Houston Nutt and his ability to step up with an SEC title and perhaps a national title in his sights.
Sadly, it’s never happened before. In 1998, Arkansas folded after holding a commanding lead over the Volunteers in Knoxville. In 2003, after whipping a Texas Longhorn team ranked in the top 10, and starting 4-0, Arkansas lost three straight games on its way to a disappointing 8-4 season. The “big” wins in Nutt’s tenure, like the win over Tennessee in 1999, came during mediocre seasons (the Razorbacks finished that season 7-4, but did win the Cotton Bowl).
But we’re willing to argue that the 2006 team is the most complete team Nutt’s ever had. Offensively, it is by far his best team. It seems that after his performance against South Carolina, everyone’s talking about Darren McFadden. While we’re not ready to throw terms like “Heisman Trophy candidate” around (remember what happened when Cedric Cobbs got that label?), he’s the best Arkansas running back in our lifetime, perhaps ever. And when he needs a breather, All-American kick returner Felix Jones steps in. And then there’s super speedy Michael Smith. And bruiser Peyton Hillis. It’s like a fountain full of these guys, all accomplished players with different styles.
Marcus Monk and Damian Williams will have their work cut out for them on Saturday. This is likely going to be a game of intangibles – field position, turnovers, and big plays. Monk and Williams have all the big play capabilities the Hogs need and Dick has demonstrated he can deliver the football. Let’s just hope the right plays make it in into the huddle.
But no one has more challenges that Reggie Herring’s defense. We appreciate his desire to stick with man-on-man coverage (although we wonder if it’s not out of stubbornness more than anything), but Chris Houston and the other members of the Arkansas secondary are going to have to play error free football; Tennessee has the best trio of wide receivers in the country.
On the Tennessee side of the ball, Philip Fulmer has been very quiet on the status of Erik Ainge. He’s a game changing player and while back-up quarterback Jonathan Crompton performed aptly against LSU, he’s no Ainge. Not yet, at least. Hopefully, Crompton doesn’t turn in a Brodie Croyle circa 2002 performance against the Hogs in his first start. At tailback, Arian Foster will have to sit during the first half because of a bar fight, which will give the Razorbacks an opportunity to sit back in a zone if the press coverage isn’t effective.
But here’s the deal. And we know it shouldn’t matter, but we’ve watched enough football to know it does. Arkansas has been in the SEC for 15 years, and has only beaten the Volunteers twice. This isn’t South Carolina, and this isn’t Vanderbilt. There will be no intimidation factor on the Volunteers sideline. The bottom line is the Volunteers have played in big games, much bigger than this from their viewpoint, and that does matter. When those guys with the big orange T on their helmet roll into town, they will be expecting to win. Arkansas may be 5-0, but they’re still just Arkansas to Tennessee.
So will the Razorback players have that same confidence? They’ve played in two big games, but were really not given much of chance in either. This will be the first one where Arkansas comes in as the favorite. There’s no doubt that the Razorbacks haven’t been there before. Not in too many years. This is a program check game.
The Razorbacks must win two of their final three games to capture the SEC West title and earn a date with the Florida Gators in Atlanta. Tennessee, on the other, limped out of Knoxville after losing to LSU, ending what miniscule chance it hand to capture the SEC East crown.
Can Houston Nutt and the Arkansas Razorbacks get it done?
It’s a night game. On ESPN 2. With the College Gameday crew in town.
This is college football at its finest.
Step up Arkansas.
JR & HENRY PREDICTION: Arkansas 31 Tennessee 28