One the nation’s worst pass defenses.
A dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who entered the season as a dark-horse Heisman candidate.
A chance to vanquish the demons around a 15-game losing streak to the Alabama Crimson Tide at home.
And these were only the start of the similarities between the Arkansas and Tennessee football programs earlier this fall. So much of that, however, seems to have gone up in one giant puff of cigar smoke in the wake of the Vols’ 52-49 win vs Alabama on Saturday. In many ways, Tennessee is doing what Arkansas football fans envisioned for themselves entering the season: riding a cathartic high as their team soars in national polls and in its chances to break into College Football Playoff’s exclusive party of four (Vols now have a 49 % chance of making the CFP according to ESPN’s FPI).
The scene playing out in Neyland Stadium after Tennessee’s last-second, wobbly duck of a field goal barely crossed over the bar was like a ramped-up combination of Arkansas’ frenzied celebrations after knocking off Texas last season in football and then No. 1 Auburn in basketball. Tennessee fans tore down the goalposts, just as Arkansas fans had against Texas, and in both cases the school leaders pretty much said “Bring it on” to resulting fines.
Plus, about two hours after the game ended, with victory cigar smoke from thousands of stogies still lingering in the chilly night air, “Vols fans climbed atop what was left of the goal posts—a 12-foot high, orange beam jutting from the field,” Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger wrote. “They swung from the top of it and signed their names onto its exterior. Security officers snapped photos of them, just hours removed from their failed attempt to protect the pipes.”
Among the millions of people watching the wild scene in Tennessee unfold were Arkansas football players who had just wrapped up a 17-point take down of BYU on the road. They were riding a high of their own after stopping a 3-game losing streak including a 23-point defeat to Alabama that resulted in a classless mockery of an injury to KJ Jefferson by the Crimson Tide.
Trey Knox on Vols’ Big Win
“We turned the game on as soon as we got done playing, after we celebrated, and watched the ending,” recalls Razorback Trey Knox, a Tennessee native who was recruited by the Vols (Imagine “Knox-ville” becoming a thing had he emerged as a star there instead). “It was a wild game, just a fun game.”
Knox almost certainly knows some of the Tennessee football players given his Murfreesboro background and for the most part was “happy for those guys. It’s a big win,” he added in an interview with Justin Acri and Wess Moore on The Zone. “It’s hard to win in college football every weekend, and then definitely to beat the No. 3 team in the country is no small feat.”
Still, non-Vols fans and especially Razorbacks can only take so much of the endless parade of orange and hullabaloo. For a while, talk of the game took over social media and eclipsed pretty much everything. “I was happy for them, and kinda mad though,” Knox added, “because all I could see on all my social media was Tennessee orange and everybody going crazy about the goal posts getting thrown in the river, and the GoFundMe [UT raised $150,000 to replace the goal posts], and it’s just a whole bunch Tennessee stuff on all of my feeds.”
Arkansas vs Tennessee Football
This is first time that Tennessee has started a season 6-0 since 1998, which to Vols football fans immediately conjures up memories of the last national championship that program won. Arkansas football fans of a certain age, however, wince when they think of what could have been on November 14, 1998 at Neyland Stadium when the previously undefeated, No. 10 Razorbacks likely would have knocked off the top-ranked Vols had it not been for an infamous stumble and fumble.
Tennessee’s return to glory is a two-fold reminder that the Vols reached the pinnacle 24 years ago at the expense of the Hogs and that their subsequent fall has been a shorter-lived than Arkansas’. While many Arkansas fans (and SEC fans in general) are glad to see anybody beat Alabama any time, some have developed a distaste for Vols Nation which would have only sharpened after a couple seasons of heated rivalry on the diamond.
“I’m upset solely because I despise Tennessee fans,” Reddit user Frictionizer wrote. “After Ole Miss, they’re my least favorite. They just seem so cocky as soon as they’re half decent at any thing. Alabama at least has the ‘noblesse oblige’ effect of being humble when they win because they’ve done it so long.” (Well, humble outside of the KJ thing and Will Anderson’s talk).
In football, Tennessee has always recruited better than Arkansas, raised more money than Arkansas, and won more conference and national titles than Arkansas. To see the Vols doing what they doing now isn’t a surprise in the big picture.
The most meaningful part of Tennessee’s success is that it shows a clear path out of wandering the SEC desert for decades. Besides line play, four of the biggest ingredients for breaking into the SEC elite are a) a great, hungry coach and staff b) a seasoned quarterback who rises to the occasion c) a wide receiver who can produce in the biggest moments against the toughest, most physical competition d) good luck on the injury front.
Arkansas already has a) and b). Last year, it had c) in Treylon Burks and given the way Sam Pittman recruits and pulls in talent from the portal it’s not inconceivable they could get or develop another. The trick, of course, is staying healthy. This year, critical injuries to Jalen Catalon and Myles Slusher have played major roles in Arkansas’ losses. Indeed, had Catalon been healthy in last year’s Alabama game, Arkansas very well might have beaten the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.
KJ Jefferson may return for another season, just as the Vols’ Hendon Hooker returned for his redshirt senior year. An awful lot has to go right to knock off Nick Saban, but every year or two one of the teams – from Ole Miss to Texas A&M to Georgia to now Tennessee – that couldn’t get over the hump finally does it.
At this point, the formula is clear. It’s small consolation to Arkansas fans that Tennessee’s big win makes that all the more obvious, but it’s consolation nonetheless.
Listen to the entire Trey Knox interview here:
More on Arkansas vs Tennessee football here: