Razorbacks, Vols seek redemption from late-game blues

The Arkansas-Tennessee football game is set to kickoff at 6 p.m. Saturday in Knoxville and is televised on ESPN2, but considering the Razorbacks and the Vols have allowed multiple winnable games to slip away in the fourth quarter, maybe the kickoff should be rolled back to 10:30 p.m. and be carried by NBC.

Those are the traditional start time and the network for Saturday Night Live, which featured a troop of performers known as the Not-Read-For-Prime-Time Players when classic sketch comedy debuted in October of 1975.

Prime time has been hard on Tennessee. Butch Jones’ Vols have lost two of their last three games late after holding double-digit leads on Oklahoma and Florida. Tennessee is mired at 2-2 overall and 0-1 in Southeastern Conference play.

Prime time has been even tougher on the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema’s Hogs have let its last three games slip away in either the final quarter or overtime to tumble to 1-3 on the season and 0-1 in the SEC.

Both teams came into the season with high hopes as dark-horse contenders to win their respective divisions in the SEC race. Now, both are desperate for a victory. It’s not too early to suggest that their seasons are teetering on the brink. With the way both have performed, one of them might have to win by default.

With just a single win and only seven games left to play after Saturday, many feel the Razorbacks need a victory to keep legitimate bowl hopes alive.

The Vols are in better shape mathematically, but if the Razorbacks upend Tennessee, one has to wonder how damaged the Vols’ confidence would be with another loss. I mean, Arkansas couldn’t even beat Toledo, who incidentally remains undefeated going into Saturday’s game with Ball State.

In hopes of rallying fans and their troops, Bielema said his Razorbacks are unwavering. Jones called his Vols resilient. However, from the outside looking in, both teams look a bit fragile.

Lapses in mental toughness have cost the penalty-prone Razorbacks in all three of their losses, while the Vols tend to become complacent after jumping out to leads, finding it hard to gear back up after throttling down.

Odds makers have installed Tennessee as a 6.5-point favorite, most likely because the game is at Neyland Stadium, but other than that, the game looks fairly even on paper. It might even be described as Russian roulette. The winner might be the squad that best avoids self-inflicted wounds.

Both squads plan to run the football, but Tennessee has been more successful at doing so this season, averaging 248 yards for second in the SEC. The Hogs are rushing for 186.3 yards per game, which is eighth in the league. The Razorbacks are holding teams to 98.3 yards rushing per game, while the Vols are allowing 145.8 ypg. Stats can be deceptive, though. Arkansas may be a better rushing team than its stats shows, but then again, the Hogs’ defense hasn’t been seriously tested on the ground this season. That will likely change Saturday.

Conversely, both have been terrible at defending the pass with the Hogs ranked last in the SEC, surrendering 264 ypg., and Tennessee just one notch ahead of them, giving up 248 ypg.

While both classify themselves as running teams at their core, they have been so porous in pass coverage that it’s going to be too tempting for them not to try and test each other through the air. I expect Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen to throw the ball quite a bit because I think the Razorbacks will be playing from behind in portions of the game.

Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs has been more dangerous as a runner for the Vols, averaging 60.8 ypg. rushing. The Hogs have had difficulty corralling running quarterbacks this season, so Dobbs could hurt them with his feet and with play-action because the Hogs have a tendency to sellout to stop the run.

History isn’t on the Razorbacks’ side either. Arkansas has only defeated the Vols four times in 17 attempts and three of the four were at Razorback Stadium in 1999, 2006 and 2011. The one victory at Knoxville, coincidentally, came in 1992 in Barry Lunney Jr.’s first start as an Arkansas quarterback. Lunney Jr. is now the Razorbacks’ tight ends coach.

To bring this piece back around to the Saturday Night Live comparison, the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time players actually turned out to be a very talented group, with several of them going on to not just prime-time fame but also Hollywood greatness. Chevy Chase, Garrett Morris, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtain, Laraine Newman and Bill Murray, who joined in the second season after the departure of Chase, all left their mark on the entertainment industry.

True greatness has already escaped Tennessee and Arkansas this season. Both have already let too many games get away. However, they each have the capacity to go on to a solid season. Winning this game won’t ensure that, but it would be a giant step in the right direction. It’s going to be interesting to see which team meets the challenge of taking it.