HOGS vs. Tennessee in-depth preview
FAYETTEVILLE - Because of its offensive line, Tennessee is a slight favorite on the betting line to beat Arkansas.
Coach Sam Pittman’s 2-3 Razorbacks play host the third-year UT coach Jeremy Pruitt’s 2-3 Vols at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on the SEC Network.
Though their records are the same, Tennessee has lost its past three games, yet the Vols are 2-point favorites. It must be the offensive line, regarded so much a Tennessee asset that the Vols opened the season ranked 25th in the AP Top 25.
At 2-0, Tennessee zoomed to 16th following their 31-27 victory at South Carolina and 35-12 mashing of Missouri.
Consecutive losses to No. 5 Georgia, Kentucky and No. 2 Alabama vanquished the Vols from the rankings but not their offensive line from impressing rivals.
“Nasty, big and strong,” Pittman surmised of the Tennessee line.
During his 2016-2019 tenure as Georgia’s line coach, Pittman tried to recruit nearly the entire starting Tennessee O-line, especially preseason Outland Trophy candidate left guard Trey Smith. Smith is one of three 6-6, 330-pounders on a Tennessee line.
It’s a line Pittman said perfectly fits his old offensive coordinator buddy Jim Chaney, the O coordinator at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia before Chaney returned with a hefty raise to coordinate Pruitt’s Vols.
“They're built around that offensive line, and he's turning around and handing the football off,” Pittman said. “And if you're not able to stop it, he'll never throw a pass. I mean, he just won't. He's trying to win the game, and he's trying to beat you up.”
Though Pittman said Arkansas’ defensive line played better than he thought at Texas A&M, the Razorbacks’ defense never could sack A&M quarterback Kellen Mond in the 42-31 loss. And the UA linebackers and secondary he bragged on the first four games didn’t tackle well, he said.
Of course, it hurt that premier safety Jalen Catalon was charged early for targeting, which automatically disqualified him the remainder of the game. Catalon is back for Saturday’s kickoff.
“Losing Catalon the other night showed,” Pittman said. “He’s very valuable back there.”
Minus Catalon, an Arkansas defense that had led the nation with 10 interceptions plus three fumble recoveries did not net a turnover against A&M.
Pruitt, whose Vols come off an open date, said they likely can’t end their three-game losing streak unless they turn around their turnover ratio.
“We played the first two games and were plus three in the turnover margin,” Pruitt said of Tennessee’s 2-0 start. “And since then we’re minus six - might be minus seven. So, No. 1 we’ve got to take care of the football.”
Senior starting quarterbacks get blamed by fans coveting playing their backups if a team starts losing. Pruitt dutifully practiced freshman QB Harrison Bailey during the open date week but will start senior Jarrett Guarantano.
Asked if he expects to see Bailey quarterbacking Saturday, Pittman replied “no,” though devoting some practice portions against Bailey’s style just in case.
Pruitt and Pittman haven’t forgotten that Guarantano quarterbacked the Vols’ six-game winning streak to close out their 8-5 season in 2019.
“Guarantano has played 39 games,” Pittman said. “I wouldn’t think in a bye week that anything would change, and obviously it hasn’t. The guy is a good football player.”
On Tennessee’s defense, Pittman most touts linebacker Henry To’o To’o.
“He’s as a good a linebacker as there is in the SEC and probably the nation,” Pittman said.
Tennessee's top three tacklers do not crack the Top 150 nationally in total tackles, while Arkansas has three defenders in the nation's Top 50: junior linebacker Bumper Pool (fifth), senior LB Grant Morgan (No. 10) and redshirt freshman Catalon (No. 44).
Pruitt cited concerns regarding those turnovers that Hog DC Barry Odom's defense has mustered, including three for TDs recorded collectively by Catalon, nickel back Greg Brooks and Morgan.
Pruitt cited the skill set of UA senior quarterback Feleipe Franks and his weapons. Franks has completed 105 of 159 passes for 1,213 yards and 11 TDs with three interceptions. Franks took off for 91 rushing yards last week at A&M. Senior running back Rakeem Boyd carried 18 times for 100 yards against A&M. And 6-3, 232-pound sophomore receiver Treylon Burks has caught 26 passes this season for 366 yards and four TDs.
“He’s a mismatch guy,” Pruitt said. “Probably 230 pounds and runs like probably 4.4 guy. I think he’s one of the best players in our conference.”