AF: Before the season started, I circled this game thinking that College Gameday would be in Knoxville for a clash between two teams that had turned the corner for the better. Clearly, that's no longer the case. Even if Tennessee wins on Saturday they will be 3-2, would fans still be disappointed? Or would they believe they could still be turning the corner?
Arkansas vs. Tennessee Preview: Q&A with Rocky Top Talk
Thanks to Will Shelton of Rocky Top Talk for answering our questions this week.
By Ryan Higgins
RTT: Fans will be disappointed in the way the Oklahoma and Florida games ended until Tennessee wins a game of equal magnitude, which thanks to our mutual stumbling this Arkansas game is not. But if the Vols beat Arkansas and then beat Georgia next week in Knoxville, Tennessee should be back in control of its own fate in the SEC East and fans will have something to celebrate. Tennessee fans have been looking for the win that helps them separate the present from the past seven years; getting these next two together would do that. Because the Vols have been good enough to build two possession leads on Oklahoma and Florida, I think there's still a belief the Vols are in the process of turning the corner.
AF: I heard Booger McFarland say something about Butch Jones to the affect of "my peewee football coach could manage the end of games better." Does that sound about right in your assessment of Butch the past few games?
RTT: Tennessee had not lost a game it led by two possessions in the fourth quarter in almost 30 years, and Butch Jones has done it three times in the last dozen games, including twice against Florida with a chance to break what is now an 11-year streak. The Vols' end of game troubles have been one part passive play, one part lack of execution on critical downs, and one part outright game mismanagement. The coaching was at its worst in the final drive against Florida, when the Vols wasted all kinds of time and had indecision lead to a substitution infraction turning a 50 yard field goal into a 55 yarder. To be fair, the Vols were lights out in coming back from down two scores in the last five minutes at South Carolina last year, so this coaching staff (with a different offensive coordinator) has done it well before. But the end of the Oklahoma and Florida games have been a nightmare.
AF: On the level of Smokey the Dog to Clay Travis, how much do Tennessee fans dislike Arkansas? I know Tennessee touches a lot of other states, but is there any type of natural geographic rivalry?
RTT: I think there used to be some rivalry there when we played each other every year, but living in East Tennessee there's really not any crossover. The series is always remembered for the games which impacted Tennessee's title hopes in 1998 and 1999, and the six overtime affair in 2002, but nothing current. It's helpful to be forgetful when the last time we met we lost by 42 points.
AF: To be honest, this game deserves the old 11:30 Jefferson Pilot slot the way these two teams have been a debacle the last few weeks. Do you think Arkansas or Tennessee has been a bigger disappointment from a national perspective?
RTT: It has to be Arkansas simply because the Hogs have lost an additional game and lost to Toledo, while the Vols lost two virtual toss-ups at the last minute. I don't think Tennessee was necessarily overrated, I just think the Vols haven't done what they needed to do to finish teams off. But the fact the Vols were up 17-3 on Oklahoma with nine minutes left and 27-14 on Florida with ten minutes left means Tennessee is capable of being the team many thought they would be.
AF: Do you see any circumstances that would cause Butch Jones to not be the head coach of Tennessee in 2016?
RTT: Nothing within the realm of possibility, I think. His buyout is massive and the Vols don't want to keep playing this turnover game. I know lots of Vol fans were dreaming of 10-2 or so this year, but 8-4 would still be the best season in Knoxville since 2007. If the Vols continue to lose close games most of the conversation will be about how hot his seat would be next year and how it might impact recruiting.
AF: Prediction, please.
RTT: I'm taking the Vols simply because I think Tennessee is slightly more talented and has played better for far longer this season than Arkansas has. Weather could be an issue here that makes this really ugly, but I think Tennessee's offense will have some opportunities downfield they weren't willing to risk against Florida's secondary, and if they can hit those they can get and stay in front. I've got Tennessee 27-17.