It’s Back to the Slaughterhouse

Saturday’s respite from SEC warfare was a welcome one — a nice break between conference juggernauts. The word ‘between’ is the problem. It connotes a temporary state, beckoning the inevitable.

For working fools, Monday always comes no matter how relaxing the weekend was.

For Tennessee, it is Arkansas that calls (Saturday 6:00 EST on ESPN2), followed by the once-unlikely requirement of having to beat both Vandy and Kentucky for the chance to call ourselves winners.

The Razorbacks (8-1/4-1) are still in the fight for a SEC West title. Kentucky and Vandy, along with Tennessee, are all standing at 4-5, striving to be called ‘winner.’

The teams on the Vols’ remaining schedule are all highly motivated.

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The Razorbacks are coming off a very impressive fourth quarter in their win (44-28) over South Carolina. They are also 20-5 over their last 25 games. Auburn, Alabama, and LSU are the only other SEC schools that have won that many of their last 25.

Arkansas has also won six straight against SEC East schools, tied for the longest current interdivision win streak in the conference.

But the most disturbing attribute of Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks, especially considering the Vols’ second half history this season, is that they have outscored their opponents 164-80 in the second half, including an 81-24 fourth-quarter margin. And, Arkansas has outscored its last five opponents by 102-31 in the second half.

The bell tolls in Fayetteville.

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James Franklin is trying to create a college football atmosphere at Vanderbilt. That oxymoronish thought is now serious business in Nashville. How serious? Three of Vandy’s five SEC losses were slim: 5 points to an improving Georgia team; a 3-point heartbreaker to Arkansas; and 5 points down in the Swamp.

The 39-year old first-time head coach is trying to build a winning program at one of America’s most unlikely places: the historical doormat of the toughest conference in college football. The wine-and-cheese approach that might fit culturally at the Duke-of-the-SEC isn’t going to work, and he knows it.

Franklin has come to this point in his career the hard-scrabble way, through bus-stop schools like Kutztown State and East Stroudsburg (his alma mater). He was even a coach with the Roskilde Kings of the Danish American Football Federation for a season. Franklin toiled for 12 seasons before getting the higher visibility gig of offensive coordinator at a major college: Kansas State (2006-07) and Maryland (2008-10).

While in school, he held the job of paperboy, dishwasher, landscaper, pizza deliveryman, and road paver. That’s one reason he can relate to his players who come to him from all kinds of environments.

He is implementing his undergraduate degree in psychology with an effect not seen in Nashville since perhaps the 1920s. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and that has rubbed off on his players.

Franklin’s upcoming pre-game locker room talk in the bowels of Neyland Stadium will likely be one for the ages.

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Kentucky can no longer be thought of as the worst of the SEC. The Wildcats bounced the Old Miss Rebels 30-13 at home on Saturday, all but ending Houston Nutt’s stay in Oxford. They did it with a true freshman QB.

The best Kentucky can likely achieve this season is an even 6-6, which would come with the prize of a bowl game. If that is accomplished with a likely loss to Georgia on November 19 in Athens, then it also includes knocking off Vandy this week in Nashville and the Vols in Lexington on Thanksgiving weekend.

But even if the ‘Cats were to lose both games before Tennessee comes to town, they will still be highly motivated. There’s that little losing streak that they’d like to get off of their game notes summary.

Noteworthy is the fact that Kentucky, before Saturday’s win over the Rebels, was ranked 22nd nationally in pass defense (190+ yards per game). That category of excellence alone give the ‘Cats exactly what the Vols don’t need on what will likely be another cold night in Lexington.

Kentucky also makes very few mistakes (2nd in the SEC in fewest yards penalized) by following head coach Joker Phillips’ constant preaching about discipline. The very least a bad football program can do is not make unforced errors. Derek Dooley wishes he had the Wildcats’ stats for penalties.

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As Johnny Majors used to say, “They will remember what you do in November.”

Last November, Dooley found Tyler Bray just in time for a perfect month. This November offers no unusued bullets in the belt. And, the opposition is much tougher.

Last season’s Ole Miss Rebels were in free-fall and no comparison to this season’s top-10 Arkansas Razorbacks. This season’s Vanderbilt Commodores have a renewed sense of spirit under a highly motivated and inspirational leader. Last season’s Kentucky Wildcats were probably better that this season’s model. But the thought of bringing no ground attack to a season finale in Lexington against a team surely tired of talk about “The Streak” should give the Vol Nation some pause.

It’s Monday. It’s back to the slaughterhouse.

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