Saturday’s game seemingly features two teams headed in different directions. Both are 2-3, but Arkansas is on the rise with a first-year coach and a new team. Tennessee was expected to compete for the SEC East, but after three straight blowout losses (including a 34-7 stinker against Kentucky), fan confidence in third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt is shaken.
The Vols opened as 3-point favorites, and this is expected to be a close game. Despite the rough start, this is a talented team, and as we’ll see, the Vols do a lot of things that make this a tough matchup for the Razorbacks.
(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)
We’re making a few changes to the presentation of the stats this week. First, because the all-SEC schedule gives us no way to compare SEC teams to teams from any other conferences, from here on in, all rankings will be given out of 14 SEC teams only. So if you see “12th” on a chart… that’s 12th in the SEC out of 14, not 12th in the FBS. Second, I’ve changed up the organization of the charts below. Leave a comment on which format you prefer.
Now let’s do some mid-season advanced stats. Based on Adjusted Scoring Margin – our all-encompassing measure of quality – here are the SEC’s 14 teams ranked, along with how many points worse each team is than #1 Alabama on a neutral field:
- Georgia -5
- Florida -13
- Auburn -18
- Texas A&M -24
- Kentucky -25
- Arkansas -26
- South Carolina -26
- Ole Miss -26
- Missouri -29
- Tennessee -29
- Mississippi State -31
- LSU -33
- Vanderbilt -51
Arkansas is 7th after finishing 11th, 14th, and 13th over the past three seasons. Arkansas’ three losses are to teams ranked 2nd, 4th, and 5th, and its two wins over teams ranked 9th and 12th. So that checks out. The EV+ model favors the Hogs in three remaining games: #10 Missouri, #11 Tennessee, and #13 LSU. The Hogs will be underdogs against #1 Alabama and #3 Florida. Getting to 5-5 would be an amazing accomplishment, but it is extremely doable for Sam Pittman and company.
Here are the offenses ranked by PAN, with teams 2-14 displaying how many points worse each team is than the leader:
- Ole Miss -3
- Florida -6
- Texas A&M -7
- Auburn -13
- Georgia -14
- LSU -15
- Missouri -15
- South Carolina -16
- Tennessee -16
- Arkansas -19
- Kentucky -19
- Mississippi State -26
- Vanderbilt -33
The Razorback defense has already faced offenses ranked 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th this year and will face 1-8 by season’s end. Lovely.
And here’s the same for the defenses:
- Mississippi State -1
- Arkansas -4
- Alabama -6
- Kentucky -6
- Florida -7
- Tennessee -8
- Auburn -9
- Missouri -11
- Texas A&M -12
- South Carolina -12
- Vanderbilt -14
- Ole Miss -20
- LSU -21
Slightly friendlier, as the Hogs avoid teams ranked 5th, 11th, and 12th. Did anyone expect to see a Mike Leach defense ranked 2nd while LSU comes in dead last? Goodness.
Alright, let’s dive into Saturday’s game.
- On both sides of the ball, Tennessee wants to be physical and adopt the mentality of head coach Jeremy Pruitt, the former defensive coordinator at Alabama.
- Tennessee’s offense is built around a strong line, but the Vols have major issues with their quarterback and skill positions.
- With its conservative, run-heavy approach, Tennessee owns the conference’s least-explosive offense. While the Vols are decent at staying on schedule offensively, they’re very bad when they get knocked off schedule.
- Like its offense, the Vol defense is built around controlling the line of scrimmage and overwhelming bad offensive lines. That’s not a great matchup for Arkansas, but Tennessee can be had by offenses that come out throwing and forces the defense to be sound in space.
Our projected score is Arkansas 26, Tennessee 21. To reach that, the Hogs will need force Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano to make mistakes, something the Hogs couldn’t do to Kellen Mond a week ago.
When Tennessee has the ball
Arkansas’ defensive staff will have plenty of notes on Tennessee and OC Jim Chaney. Chaney was Arkansas’ offensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014 with Pittman as OL coach. The pair reconnected in 2016 at Georgia in the same roles. DC Barry Odom, DB coach Sam Carter, and DL coach Derrick LeBlanc have all faced Chaney (and Guarantano) several times: Odom and Carter at Mizzou and LeBlanc at Kentucky.
There’s good news and bad news behind the Tennessee offense. First, the bad news: from a schematic standpoint, Tennessee is almost identical to Texas A&M, which just hung 42 on the Hogs. The Vols want to rely on their excellent offensive line, balance the run and pass, and protect their veteran quarterback with rhythm throws and a clean pocket. Arkansas’ defense is not well-built to deal with that.
The good news, however, is that outside of the offensive line, the Vols are across-the-board worse than Texas A&M otherwise. See what I mean:
The line stats heavily favor Tennessee, but the Vols have several problems. First, they are the least-explosive offense in the conference. That’s not surprising for a run-heavy offense with quarterback troubles, but what is surprising is that they aren’t really efficient to compensate for it. And while Tennessee is decent at staying on schedule (6th in leverage rate), third downs have been a huge problem. That’s not a recipe for success in this type of offense. Key to Texas A&M’s dominant performance last week was a +26% marginal third down conversion rate. Tennessee is less likely to pull something like that off.
It starts up front for Tennessee, where the run game has had plenty of holes but not a lot of production.
Tennessee’s poor rushing efficiency numbers are entirely on the running backs, because the holes are there. The Vols rank 2nd in the conference in line yards per carry, but only 10th in bonus yards per opportunity. Check out the running back comparison (out of the top 20 SEC backs in terms of total carries), courtesy of SEC Stat Cat:
The yards after contact and broken tackle numbers are good ways to identify the skill of a back as we try to separate the run game value created by good run blocking from the run game value created by talented running backs.
Tennessee gives Jarrett Guarantano plenty of time to throw… but he doesn’t do a ton with it. As we’ll see below, Guarantano is a decent deep-ball passer but struggles with shorter throws. So Tennessee has above-average pass game explosiveness but the efficiency isn’t there.
While Tennessee will have the same objective as Texas A&M – protect the veteran quarterback, stay on schedule with rhythm throws, balance run and pass – Guarantano has struggled to maintain the passing efficiency necessary to make it all work.
Part of the reason is that he’s simply less accurate than Kellen Mond:
On short passes last week, Mond was 13 of 14 for 96 yards. Short passes are his specialty and they proved to be devastating against the Hog zone. Mond was also solid on intermediate passes: 6 of 10 for 97 and two touchdowns.
Here’s Guarantano this year:
- Short passes: 66 of 85 for 440 yards, one touchdown and one interception
- Intermediate passes: 9 of 23 for 170 yards and an interception
- Deep passes: 10 of 28 for 334 yards, five touchdowns and an interception
Deep passes are obviously critical for the Vols. Arkansas doesn’t give up many, so this makes for an interesting battle.
When Arkansas has the ball
The Vol defense was supposed to be pretty salty this year, but outside of a strong performance against Mizzou (who has since bench the quarterback who started that game), the defense hasn’t been all that good.
The defense’s goal is to dominate the line of scrimmage and limit big plays. Tennessee will allow a high rate of completions and some early downs efficiency in exchange for sacks, run stuffs, and a cap on big plays. Unfortunately, just like the offense’s high-efficiency strategy breaks down because they can’t keep drives alive on third down, so too the defense struggles when it gets close to getting off the field. The Vols are mediocre on third down (9th) and bad on passing downs (11th in standard downs SR). Given that they also allow the second-highest leverage rate in the conference, they set themselves up to not be able to end drives. Opponents that can avoid negative plays against them can stay on schedule and keep the chains moving.
The Razorback run game had a breakout against Texas A&M’s decent run defense, but Tennessee’s defensive front isn’t messing around. The Hogs will once against have to come out throwing. That said, if the Hogs can get Rakeem Boyd and the run game going, Tennessee will be in trouble. Arkansas rushed for 220 yards against Texas A&M; my bold prediction is that if the Hogs can hit 200 and have equal or fewer turnovers than the Vols, they’ll win easily.
The Vols may have something to say about that. Linebackers Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch are talented run stoppers. To’o To’o has a sack and a pick-six while Crouch has a forced fumble.
Assuming the run game doesn’t go crazy, Arkansas will need an efficient game from Feleipe Franks. It’s doable against this defense:
As will be a theme for the rest of the year, keeping Franks upright will be top priority. With Treylon Burks firmly back in the lineup and Hudson Henry coming along nicely as a short pass option, the Hogs have developed a strong early downs passing game. If that continues, protection is the only thing keeping the Hogs’ offense from continuing to break out.
Keys to the Game
- Take away the deep ball. Tennessee’s passing game is reliant on downfield passes. Without the long ball, Guarantano is a below average quarterback and Tennessee lacks the weapons to do much.
- Snag a turnover or two. The Hogs didn’t turn it over against the Aggies, but they didn’t get any of their own either. This defense feasts on turnovers. Guarantano doesn’t serve up a ton of interceptible passes, but he did throw two pick-sixes against Kentucky.
- Protect Franks. This game is setting up for Franks to get into a nice rhythm and complete a lot of short and medium passes, but the main thing potentially working against the Hogs is the Tennessee pass rush. Pressuring Franks is Tennessee’s best bet for knocking the Razorback passing game off track, so the Hog blockers have to prevent that.