Whether or not Tennessee put its open date to good use will be revealed Saturday night when the Volunteers resume their 10-game football season with a cross-divisional contest at Arkansas.
The Vols opened Jeremy Pruitt's third season with wins over South Carolina and Missouri but have since lost to Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama. The three setbacks transpired by an average of 27 points, which includes the staggering 34-7 loss to Kentucky inside Neyland Stadium that was sandwiched between games against the top-five duo of Georgia and Alabama.
"Obviously this is not where we want to be, so we've got to keep fighting," Vols senior left guard Trey Smith said this week. "Regardless of what's happening, we're going to fight every opponent. This game is not based on sympathy. No one is going to feel sorry for you, so you've got to come to work every day."
That Tennessee is 2-3 through five games is a mild surprise. That Arkansas is 2-3 is downright shocking.
The Razorbacks entered this season on a 19-game Southeastern Conference losing streak and suffered a 20th consecutive defeat when Georgia spoiled Sam Pittman's head coaching debut with a 37-10 whipping in Fayetteville. They have since defeated Mississippi State and Ole Miss and easily could be 3-2 right now were it not for a 30-28 loss at Auburn that ended in controversy.
Pittman had never even been a coordinator before his hiring last December, but he landed Kendal Briles as his offensive coordinator, Florida transfer Feleipe Franks as his quarterback and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom to run the defense. The Razorbacks lead the league with 13 takeaways and a plus-1.20 turnover margin per game.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has lost eight turnovers in its past three games and has a minus-.20 margin.
"It's been well documented the turnovers they've gained this year," Pruitt said. "Coach Odom is doing a fantastic job, and their guys play hard and play together and give you a lot of different looks."
The Vols won four times as many games as the Razorbacks last season, when Tennessee went 8-5 and topped Indiana in the Gator Bowl. It's the experience that Tennessee has returned from that team that has Pittman's attention — not the three-game skid.
"Tennessee is a big, physical, good-looking, good-playing football team that loves to throw the ball deep," Pittman said. "They can run the ball. They're very powerful and have a very impressive offensive line. On the defensive front, they're very big and powerful, and they have a wonderful linebacker in Henry To'o To'o.
"Their safeties are an extension of the linebacker group, because they will run and hit. You can see this has Jeremy Pruitt's handprints all over it."
While the Vols were off last Saturday, the Razorbacks were losing 42-31 at Texas A&M. Arkansas players returned to Fayetteville at 2:30 Sunday morning before going through a light practice that evening, so Tennessee could have an advantage in preparation given that Tuesday was an NCAA-mandated day off in order that student-athletes in all fall sports could vote.
Tennessee faced its closing five-game stretch during last year's regular season with a 2-5 record, with a 41-21 dubbing of visiting South Carolina igniting the run to Jacksonville. Producing a similar surge has been discussed the past couple of weeks, but only time will tell whether Fayetteville will serve as another launching point.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 Eastern, and SEC Network will televise the game.
"We've been down and out before," To'o To'o said. "We've been counted out before, and we know what it takes to get back. Coach Pruitt harps on us all the time that we're going to find a way. No matter what it is or how we're looking or how we're doing, we're going to find a way to come out with the results that we want."
Said sophomore running back Eric Gray: "We know the recipe to make this in-season transition, and I think there is a lot we can look at from last season. We've talked about how this is our team, and we have to go change the culture and make this turnaround. I think we're going to go do it again."
Tide player hurt
Alabama redshirt freshman running back Trey Sanders was involved in a car wreck Friday morning and was in stable condition with injuries that are not life-threatening, according to a release from the university.
"We are in direct contact with his family and the physicians that are treating him as we continue to gather more information," coach Nick Saban said in a released statement.