Tennessee football had turnaround last time it played Arkansas at 2-3

Oct 1994: James Stewart of the Tennessee Volunteers in action during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Tennessee Volunteers won the game 38-21. Mandatory Credit: Tom Ewart /Allsport
Oct 1994: James Stewart of the Tennessee Volunteers in action during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Tennessee Volunteers won the game 38-21. Mandatory Credit: Tom Ewart /Allsport /

The Tennessee football Volunteers can look to their 1994 game against the Razorbacks.

Coming off a bye with a 2-3, Jeremy Pruitt and Tennessee football will try to turn things around at the Arkansas Razorbacks this Saturday. For multiple reasons, history bodes well for them. We already wrote here about how the Vols came away with huge wins each time they have come off the bye with a 2-3 record this century.

However, history also bodes well for Rocky Top when facing the Hogs with a 2-3 record. It has only happened once before, but it happened in a season that set the stage for the greatest run of the modern era for the Vols.

The year was 1994. Tennessee football lost its opener at the UCLA Bruins by two points, largely because its starting quarterback, fifth-year senior Jerry Colquitt, suffered a season-ending injury. Todd Helton played the bulk of that game in Colquitt’s place, but two freshmen also saw a bit of action: Branndon Stewart and Peyton Manning.

Anyway, Helton got the start the next week as the Vols dominated the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens thanks to a historic effort from James Stewart. The next week, though, UT was shut out at home by the Florida Gators. Then, at the Mississippi State Bulldogs, Helton got hurt, and that forced Phillip Fulmer to turn to Manning.

The Vols lost to MSU and were at a crossroads with a 1-3 record and two freshmen competing for the starting quarterback spot. Manning earned it, and the next week, the Vols had a huge 10-9 upset over the No. 17 ranked Washington State Cougars. At that point, they were 2-3 and had some real confidence going into the next game, and yes, that next game was against Arkansas. .

Just like Tennessee football, the Hogs also had a 2-3 record. They had beaten the SMU Mustangs and Vanderbilt Commodores but lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide, South Carolina Gamecocks and Memphis Tigers. Second-year head coach Danny Ford was trying to navigate them through what was just their third year in the SEC.

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With three road games and four ranked opponents in their first five games, the Hogs gave appeared to be a bit of a breather for the Vols and their young quarterback. However, UT had just lost to an unranked MSU team two weeks ago.

Also, there was a history lesson for this one. At the time, Arkansas shocked the Vols in their most recent trip to Neyland, winning 25-24 in 1992 when UT was 5-0 and ranked No. 4. That sparked the three-game losing streak that eventually resulted in Johnny Majors’ ouster and Fulmer taking over as head coach in the first place.

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Would Arkansas pull it off again? Everything was in place. However, they didn’t do it. After relying on his defense and a trick play to beat Washington State, Manning had his coming out party as a freshman to prove he could lead this team. He completed 12-of-18 passes and had two touchdowns en route to a 38-21 victory on Rocky Top.

That made this game significant for a few reasons. It was the first game the Vols won that Manning truly had a major hand in, and it got them back to 3-3 after that disastrous 1-3 start. While Washington State was the turning point game, this could definitely have been considered one as well.

Anyway, the next week, the Vols suffered a heartbreaking loss to the No. 10 ranked and undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide at home. They had a chance to win in the red zone late, trailing 17-13, but suffered a turnover on downs.

Still, that got them to the bye at 3-4 with no ranked teams left on their slate, and coming off the bye, Manning settled in as Tennessee football’s starting quarterback. There was plenty of reason for this team to be encouraged.

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Rocky Top won every game the rest of the way, including their bowl game, to finish 8-4 and set the stage for the next four years, in which they would go 45-5, have four straight top 10 finishes, win two SEC titles and win a national title. This Arkansas game had a huge impact on how the season finished.