FAYETTEVILLE – Because of their line the Tennessee Volunteers slightly have the line favored to beat Arkansas Saturday night.
At Reynolds Razorback Stadium first-year Coach Sam Pittman’s 2-3 Razorbacks host third-year Coach Jeremy Pruitt’s 2-3 Vols in Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. SEC game televised by the SEC Network.
Though the records ditto and they play on the road and have lost their last three games, the Vols as of this Thursday night writing rated a Las Vegas consensus 2-points betting line favorite to prevail. It must be the offensive line, regarded so much a Tennessee asset the Vols opened the season ranked 25th in the AP Top 25. At 2-0 they zoomed to 16th following their 31-27 victory at South Carolina mashing Missouri, 35-12 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Consecutive losses at currently No. 5 Georgia and at home to Kentucky and to No. 2 Alabama vanquished the Vols from the rankings but not their offensive line from impressing their rivals.
“Nasty, big and strong” Pittman surmised of the Tennessee line.
Pittman said he tried to recruit nearly the entire starting massive Tennessee O-line, especially preseason Outland Trophy candidate left guard Trey Smith, during Pittman’s 2016-2019 tenure coaching Georgia’s offensive line.
Smith is one of three 6-6, 330-pounders on a Tennessee line.
It’s a line that Pittman said perfectly fits his old offensive coordinator buddy Jim Chaney, the coordinator with Pittman the line coach at Tennessee, Arkansas (2013-2015 under Bret Bielema) and Georgia before Chaney returned with a hefty raise to coordinate Pruitt’s Vols and Pittman returned to Arkansas as head coach.
“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 film showed Arkansas’ defensive line played better than he thought, the Razorbacks’ defense never could sack Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond in last Saturday’s SEC loss at A&M’s Kyle Field. And the linebackers and secondary he’s had cause to brag on the first four games didn’t tackle well, he said.
Of course it hurt big-time that premier safety Jalen Catalon was charged in the first half for targeting automatically disqualifying him the remainder of the game. Catalon is welcomed back for Saturday’s kickoff.
“Losing Catalon the other night it showed,” Pittman said. “He’s very valuable back there.”
Minus Catalon, an Arkansas defense earlier leading the nation with 10 interceptions plus three fumble recoveries couldn’t net a turnover against Texas A&M.
Pruitt, whose Vols come off an open date, said they likely can’t turn around from their 3-game losing streak unless they turn around their recent 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 obviously No. 1 we’ve got to take care of the football.”
Inevitably senior starting quarterbacks get blamed by fans coveting playing their backups if a team starts losing.
So Pruitt dutifully prominently practiced freshman 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 Guarantano quarterbacked the Vols’ six-game winning streak closing their 8-5 2019 propelling them opening 2020 in the AP Top 25.
“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.
Pruitt cited concerns regarding those turnovers that Arkansas’ Barry Odom coordinated defense has mustered including three for touchdowns recorded by Catalon, nickel back Greg Brooks and linebacker and Greenwood native Grant Morgan.
On Arkansas’ Pruitt cited the skill set of quarterback Feleipe Franks, 105 of 159 for 1,213 yards passing with 11 touchdowns vs. three interceptions for the season with 91 yards rushing against Texas A&M, senior running back Rakeem Boyd, 18 carries for 100 yards against A&M, and 6-3, 232, sophomore receiver Treylon Burks, 26 catches for 366 yards and four touchdowns plus eight carries for 50 yards, against everybody.
“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.”