The very basic narrative for Tennessee is, well, basic and well-known. After suffering through the worst series of seasons in program history (much to the enjoyment of everyone else in the SEC), Butch Jones took over for Derek Dooley and signed a couple of Houston Nutt-sized and top-rated recruiting classes. They finally began to turn the corner on the field late last season and squeak their way into a bowl game, where they blew out Iowa, claimed a 7-6 record, and - the checkerboard-clad hope - set the stage for a return to national relevance in 2015.
As has been much-discussed, the similarities to Arkansas' narrative are not exactly subtle. Let's go through some of the highlights from Bill Connelly's advanced stats preview on SB Nation and see how they relate to the Razorbacks.
First, there's the overarching narrative: Tennessee was scuffling along until Joshua Dobbs took over at quarterback against Alabama, and then the Vols took a big step forward.
That is true ... to a degree.
Tennessee went from averaging 4.4 yards per play without Dobbs to 5.5 with him. However:
- There were still a couple of duds (4.1 combined yards per play against a good Missouri defense and a bad Vandy defense).
- A lot of those yards came against South Carolina, Kentucky, and Iowa, which had defenses outside the Def. S&P+ top 50.
- The defense grew leaky. After allowing 4.7 yards per play through seven games, UT allowed 6.1 in the final six. South Carolina averaged 8.6, Iowa 6.4 (though a lot of Iowa's damage came in garbage time). A thin D didn't have a ton to offer good offenses and faded.
If we turn the prism, we see a team that maybe didn't improve or regress, but just did far better against lesser teams.
Almost everybody produces better results against worst teams, yes, but Tennessee seemed far more reliant than most on a talent advantage. The Vols got drubbed by Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and Alabama, and couldn't hardly move the football against Missouri. They maybe beat Georgia without an untimely quarterback injury, but for the most part, they didn't have enough to compete against really good teams.
Lesser teams could offer little resistance. The Vols let a tossup against Florida slip away and sleep-walked over Vandy, but they sliced through bad defenses late in the year, and bad offenses couldn't pretend to move the football early on.
While it probably means the Volunteers are going to be limited against a schedule that features four teams projected 12th or better, it could mean they handle business against just about every other team.
When Connelly refers to teams "projected 12th or better" he's referring to his S&P+ rank, an advanced metric you can read about here.
The good news for Arkansas is that the Hogs are one of those four teams projected in the top 12, and as you might have noticed after reading that passage, the Razorbacks' November rebound last year came against much tougher competition than the Vols faced. Tennessee's wins came in overtime against a mediocre South Carolina, by one touchdown over a wretched Vanderbilt, and blowouts over Kentucky and Iowa. Arkansas' wins, as we all know, came in blowout shutouts against ranked teams in LSU and Ole Miss. Blowing out Texas last year might not be much better statistically than blowing out Iowa, but I promise you IT FELT SO GREAT.
If any of this means anything, it might mean that Arkansas is slightly farther ahead than Tennessee is after last season.
It goes without saying that much of focus with the Vols will be on quarterback Josh Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd.
Through both graduation and transfer, UT has lost almost all of last year's backfield two-deep beyond these two, and all bets are off if either or both go down, particularly Dobbs.
You could do worse than hanging your hopes on these two. Dobbs isn't an incredible playmaker, but he's mature for his experience level and has shown he can manage a game pretty well and make plays when he needs to (just ask South Carolina). He's got plenty of growing to do -- in nine games against teams not named Kentucky, he has a passer rating over 125 just twice -- but there's no reason to assume he won't grow.
Hurd passes the eyeball test. He's a mean runner, and he grew into the go-to role. After averaging a paltry 4.2 yards per carry through seven games, he averaged 5.5 in the final six. He had 21 carries for 125 yards against South Carolina and 16 for 122 against Iowa.
Hurd's a bit of a 'tweener: he's not efficient enough to be valuable without explosiveness. Of the 54 FBS running backs with at least 190 carries last year, he ranked 33rd in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) and 48th in highlight yards per opportunity (basically, the magnitude of his successful carries). He was a freshman, sure, but 22 of the 54 players on this 190-carry list were freshmen and sophomores, and others graded out much better.
Line play was an ongoing issue, and while he wasn't breaking off 50-yarders when the line did its job, that probably prevented him from establishing much of a rhythm. Plus, it probably isn't a coincidence that his numbers improved when Dobbs took over. Dobbs' mobility gave opponents one more thing to account for, and it took eyes off of Hurd.
With Hurd and Dobbs back and the line more experienced, it's safe to assume the run game will improve.
What about the passing game? Hard to say. Virtually every wideout and tight end returns (sans senior Von Pearson, who might not), but despite epic recruiting rankings, nobody was much of a downfield threat.
The biggest difference between Tennessee and Arkansas on offense is the Razorbacks' offensive line. It's a big question mark for the Vols but the five starters for the Hogs are gracing the cover of the team's media guide. Their most experienced lineman is senior Marcus Jackson with only 17 career starts. Their line was brand new last year and they struggled significantly.
They ranked 96th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and only two teams were worse at preventing passing downs sacks: UCLA and Navy. Dobbs' mobility helped tamp the sack rates down, but he was still sacked nine times by Missouri (six) and Vanderbilt (three).
How much they improve with a year of experience is critical. As for their new linemen, they do have a 5* and three 4* players in their most recent signing class, but obviously they're all still true freshmen.
Of course, Arkansas' line won't be going up against Tennessee's offensive line directly. The Hogs have to work against the Vols' defensive front seven, which is a team strength. They return virtually everybody from a pretty effective defense last season, including sophomore star Derek Barnett (as a freshman was voted ahead of Trey Flowers on some All-SEC teams last year), Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Curt Maggot.
Tennessee's front seven brings absurd recruiting rankings and proven production in a way few other teams can.
End Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and end/linebacker Curt Maggitt combined for 46.5 tackles for loss and 23 sacks. This is impressive both in its volume and its well-roundedness. This trio was good at getting to both quarterbacks and running backs behind the line.
The loss of underrated tackle Jordan Williams hurts, and it's hard to count on oft-injured Trevarris Saulsberry to remain healthy. But between Danny O'Brien, Owen Williams, and incoming blue-chippers Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, it's hard to worry much about tackle.
Of course, Arkansas is one of the best teams in the country at preventing sacks and Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins are rarely tackled for a loss of yardage. The Hogs have to hope they can withstand the Vols front seven and have success moving the ball.
By contrast, can Arkansas' front seven take advantage of Tennessee's offensive line? We all know the Hogs have significant concerns about depth at linebacker. The defensive line should be fine, and if they can beat the Vols' line, it could be a good day for the Hogs. I'd go as far as saying the major key to the game is which offensive line can have more success blocking the other team's defensive front. The Vols have the better defensive front, but Arkansas the better offensive line. That will be key.
We'll get a pretty solid idea how good both teams will be before they kick off in October. Arkansas of course plays Texas Tech and Texas A&M in the weeks leading up to the Knoxville trip, and the Vols host Oklahoma in Week 2 and travel to Florida in Week 4 (whom the Vols haven't beaten since 2004) before the Hogs come to town. Both also have big games the following week. Tennessee hosts rival Georgia and Arkansas faces Alabama, so it will be vital for both teams to treat the game as importantly as possible.
While my opinion might change after watching both teams go through their first four games, right now I'm picking Arkansas to win. The Hogs have what we hope will be an elite offensive line to handle Tennessee's defense, and Brandon Allen makes fewer mistakes than Dobbs (last year: Allen threw five interceptions in 339 attempts, Dobbs threw six in just 177 attempts). If Arkansas' secondary can keep the Vol receivers in check and prevent big plays, this feels like a game Arkansas can win.