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Arkansas vs. Tennessee Advanced Stats Preview: Can Either Team Fi

Arkansas and Tennessee don't play well in the fourth quarter. In an evenly-matched game, someone is probably going to have to win a close game.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The good news is that Arkansas appears to have realized the 2015 season has started. Unfortunately, it's already October.

Hope springs eternal as September closes, and Arkansas begins an 8-game season, needing to go 5-3 to make a bowl. The Hogs were oh-so-close against Texas A&M, putting together an impressive offensive performance that featured an ultra-efficient offense with great ball control, but penalties, poor defense, and late-game breakdowns led to another classic heartbreak.

The good news is that like last year, this team is much better than its record indicates and appears poised to massively improve as the season progresses. The bad news is that with losses to Toledo and Texas Tech already on the ledger, the Hogs are looking at the very real possibility of ending the season playing like a top-10 team, with thunderous routs of Mississippi State and Missouri to close the year -- but they won't matter because Arkansas will still miss a bowl.

How the Hogs can make a bowl

"It is pleasant, when the sea is high and the winds are dashing the waves about, to watch from the shore the struggles of another." - Livy, Roman poet

Perhaps lost in Arkansas' rough start are the rough starts of some other SEC schools. Auburn is the worst; the Tigers' S&P+ ranking is much worse than Arkansas'. In fact, in each of the Razorbacks' three remaining home SEC games (Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri), the Hogs would undoubtedly be a Vegas favorite in each. Auburn has atrocious quarterback play, a mediocre running game, and an inconsistent defense. Mississippi State can't run the ball and its defense is suspect, although not as bad as originally feared. Missouri doesn't even play offense. They just punt on first down every time they get the ball. Okay, that last one was a joke, but so is Mizzou's offense.

Beating those three plus Tennessee-Martin brings Arkansas to five wins. That leaves one to go for a bowl. Between road games against Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss, I'm betting against the Hogs on the latter three. That leaves the Tennessee game as an absolute must-win for bowl eligibility.

Previewing Tennessee

Record Rank F/+ Rank
Arkansas 1-3 NR 29th
Tennessee 2-2 NR 24th

Third-year coach Butch Jones is often compared to Bret Bielema. Though his hiring wasn't as flashy, he was hired the same year as Bielema and inherited similar issues, namely a solid program that had been wrecked by a goofball coach.

Some comparisons are negative. Some of these Bret Bielema stats are mind-boggling:

Dismal 11-7 record when leading in the fourth quarter

2-18 record when trailing at any point during the game

0-9 in games decided by one possession

But Jones isn't much better. Teams that hold a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter are 188-3 this season. Tennessee has two of those losses. Jones is 4-7 in games decided by one possession: the four wins are South Alabama, South Carolina (twice), and Vanderbilt. In addition to blown leads against Oklahoma and Florida this season, the Vols blew a 9-0 fourth-quarter lead against Florida last year, losing 10-9. If it comes down to a close game in the fourth quarter, both teams might try to lose.

Despite an offensive pedigree, Jones’ squad at Tennessee has been better known for its defense. Tennessee’s offense has been up-and-down this year, typically starting strong and falling apart late (more on that coming up). The defense is top-20 nationally for the first three quarters, but 85th in the fourth quarter.

Tennessee's offense vs. Arkansas' defense

TENN offense ARK defense Advantage
S&P+ 36th 88th TENN
Success Rate 49th 117th TENN big
isoPPP 104th 91st push
Standard Downs S&P+ 57th 122nd TENN big
Pass Downs S&P+ 63rd 33rd ARK

The Vols' dink-and-dunk spread offense was largely a failure for the first year and a half of the Jones era, but giving the reigns to dual-threat talent Joshua Dobbs late in 2014 provided a spark. Against suspect competition (the wins were South Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Iowa), Dobbs was brilliant. He wasn’t particularly consistent, but he gave the Tennessee offense enough punch to complement a talented defense, hence the hype for 2015.

So far, as it has in Fayetteville, the hype train has been derailed. Arkansas’ hiring of Dan Enos as offensive coordinator created a chain reaction that led to Tennessee losing its offensive coordinator and hiring the more conservative Mike DeBord. A pro-style coach normally, DeBord has done some good things in Knoxville, such as improving the run game efficiency and overall success rate. However, the more efficiency-based offense has taken away much of Dobbs’ explosive, play-making ability. In fact, Tennessee’s overall passing game has major problems that may limit its ability to take advantage of Arkansas’ weak passing defense.

TENN offense ARK defense Advantage
Rushing S&P+ 27th 48th push
Success Rate 51st 87th TENN
isoPPP 57th 59th push
Std. Downs Run Rate 67.4% (23rd) 49.3% (115th) -

Tennessee has adopted more of a downhill, run-first approach. After running the ball just 54% of standard downs in 2014, Tennessee now runs it 67% of the time on standard downs (that’s more than Arkansas, by the way). The combo of the physical Jalen Hurd and the more explosive Alvin Kamara has looked pretty good so far. Dobbs is also a serious threat to run the ball, sometimes on designed runs, and sometimes on scrambles. He led the team in rushing against Florida.

TENN offense ARK defense Advantage
Passing S&P+ 70th 104th TENN
Success Rate 44th 123rd TENN big
isoPPP 110th 89th push
Sack Rate 108th 106th push

Either Dobbs has been exposed as a passer, or the new offense isn’t working well with him. Perhaps in the offseason teams had to study film on him. Either way, Tennessee finished 2014 ranked 54th in passing game explosiveness (isoPPP) but has collapsed to 110th so far this season. Against Florida’s excellent defense, Dobbs was 10 of 17 for 83 yards. That’s poor explosiveness (just 8.3 yards per completion) and just bad overall.

Those low numbers, combined with the fact that Arkansas just faced two far-superior passing attacks (possibly three, Toledo’s not bad), could give the Hog defense a major advantage.

It gets worse for Tennessee’s offense. Here are their S&P+ rankings for each of the four quarters, in order: 32nd, 55th, 50th, 86th. The offense clearly regresses as the game goes on. A combination of a non-explosive offense and an offense that regresses late is absolutely devastating in close games (as Arkansas is continuing to learn).

Arkansas' offense vs. Tennessee's defense

ARK offense TENN defense Advantage
S&P+ 5th 32nd ARK
Success Rate 3rd 35th ARK
isoPPP 87th 77th push
Standard Downs S&P+ 8th 32nd push
Pass Downs S&P+ 41st 13th TENN

Defense remains the Vols’ calling card. Their front seven is especially nasty, and the Vols have by far the best defense Arkansas has faced this year.

Still, there are ways Arkansas can exploit minor weaknesses. First: Tennessee’s defense is much worse on standard downs than it is on passing downs. Standard downs are first down, second and less than 10, and third and fourth and less than 5. Basically, it’s any down where a passing play is not obvious.

When you divide Tennessee’s defensive metrics between standard and passing downs, some weaknesses emerge. The Vols are 32nd nationally in standard downs defense (compared to 13th on passing downs). More specifically, they are 80th in isoPPP (explosive plays allowed) and 88th in sack rate, meaning that they don’t force many negative plays and give up a lot of big plays on standard downs.

ARK offense TENN defense Advantage
Rushing S&P+ 41st 32nd push
Success Rate 2nd 33rd ARK
isoPPP 123rd 80th TENN
Std. Downs Run Rate 65.0% (38th) 47.2% (120th) -

Arkansas has shown massive improvement running the football over these last two weeks, and this is a good opportunity to show that the running game has completely recovered from the Toledo funk. Tennessee is pretty good, but not quite dominant, against the run. Florida’s Kelvin Taylor averaged over 5 yards per carry against the Vols, but overall, Florida barely topped 100 yards rushing.

We see in these metrics some of the changes Arkansas made to the run game. I can only assume that Bret Bielema asked Sam Pittman and Dan Enos to make some changes to the way Arkansas blocks for the run game. The Hogs were probably looking for a way to ensure that they can run against more elite fronts like Alabama and LSU. If you watch the running game, you’ll see a dizzying collection of trap blocks, wham blocks, and other misdirection and carefully-angled schemes designed to spring open a quick hole for the back to glide through. The downside is that it won’t generate too many explosive plays (plus Alex Collins isn’t an explosive back), but in this offense, it doesn’t have to.

It backfired in the first two weeks, as the line had major issues with the smaller, faster fronts of UTEP and Toledo. But it has come together in the last two weeks, and Arkansas has totaled over 65% success when running the ball against Tech and A&M, easily the best in the FBS.

ARK offense TENN defense Advantage
Passing S&P+ 6th 25th push
Success Rate 5th 52nd ARK
isoPPP 34th 56th push
Sack Rate 9th 79th ARK big

Here again, the Vols are pretty good, but not quite dominant against the pass. They are prone to giving up big plays. Florida quarterback Will Grier completed 23 of 42 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

Brandon Allen, by the way, is 17th nationally in passer rating, and his rating of 166.1 is better than any individual season of Ryan Mallett or Tyler Wilson in Fayetteville. If only the Hogs could finish.

Keys to the game

  1. No penalties. Penalties killed the Hogs against Texas A&M, with Denver Kirkland’s false start on fourth-and-3 becoming the "Skipper trip" for this season. Arkansas’ offense can’t get out of its own way in critical moments.
  2. Disrupt Josh Dobbs' rhythm. Dobbs hasn’t proven much as a passer this season, but his running ability keeps Tennessee’s offense dynamic. There aren’t many teams Dobbs can beat from the pocket. Arkansas’ porous secondary probably makes them one of those teams anyway, but I’d much rather lose by Dobbs proving himself as a pocket passer than by Dobbs running roughshod over our contain defense. Keeping him in the pocket – and from hitting big plays down the field – should keep Tennessee’s offense from being too tough.
  3. Finish. Arkansas is good enough to win this game, but Arkansas is good enough to be 4-0 and the Hogs are 1-3. At some point, the offense and defense have to finish a close game. These teams are very evenly-matched, and this game is very likely to be close. Time to finish.