Perspective Piece: Tennessee-Arkansas

Staff Columnist
Posted Nov 8, 2006

When Houston Nutt brings his Arkansas team into battle against Phil Fulmer's Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, life for the Boss Hog will come full circle.

Indeed, when Woo Pig Sooey meets the Children of the Checkerboard under the lights in Fayetteville, the one-time quarterback for Frank Broyles will have a greater appreciation for the journey taken by Fulmer, his coaching counterpart in this huge SEC showdown.

In his first season as the head coach of the Razorbacks, Nutt brought his boys into Knoxville to take on a team that was unbeaten in the SEC and having the time of its life. Yes, in 1998, the Tennessee Volunteers--who were extremely good to begin with and had world-class leadership from legendary linebacker Al Wilson--experienced a magic carpet ride of a season. Despite being outpassed by Florida to the tune of more than 300 yards, the Vols upended the Gators that year on the strength of a goal-line fumble from Florida's Terry Jackson; an improbable touchdown on a pop-fly pass that Peerless Price wrested from a Florida defender; a sorely underthrown ball by Florida's Jesse Palmer on a play where a Gator receiver got behind the Tennessee secondary (Vol safety Deon Grant wound up making an interception on the play); and a missed 32-yard field goal by Florida that would have taken the game to a second overtime stanza. Later in that same 1998 season, fortune would once again smile on the Vols in close-shave wins over Mississippi State and in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl against Florida State. Tennessee's 13-0 run to gridiron glory had many fortuitous moments.

None, however, were as miraculous or heaven-sent as the break the Vols received against Houston Nutt's first Arkansas team on November 14, 1998.

For two and a half quarters, an inspired roster of Razorbacks ran Hog wild over the stale and shellshocked Volunteers, racking up a 24-10 lead against an offense that could no longer count on Peyton Manning's late-game heroics. With Tee Martin under center in Knoxville, it seemed that Nutt's team was going to pull off the titanic upset and march to an SEC West title that would have arrived much sooner than anyone in Fayetteville could have hoped for. And even though Arkansas began to buckle under the fourth-quarter pressure, the Hogs' defense--when under the gun--produced a gutsy, gritty stand with under 2:30 left, shutting down the Vols on four straight plays. It seemed that Tennessee's dream season was done.

Then it happened.

An Arkansas team that was made of Stoerner stuff suddenly lost its handle on the game in an all-too-literal fashion. When the Hogs got the ball back and had to merely hold onto the ball to win the game, quarterback Clint Stoerner--who had been such a rock of dependability for Nutt all season long (and who, to this day, remains the best QB of the Nutt era in Fayetteville)--placed the pigskin on the ground as the result of an ill-advised attempt to keep his balance and run away from pressure. The ball squirted out of Stoerner's hand, and Tennessee's Billy Ratliff pounced on the pigskin at the Arkansas 43 with 1:43 left. Five Travis Henry running plays later, the Vols predictably rolled into the end zone, powering past the spiritually broken Hogs for the "Six!... Big!... Points!" that loomed particularly large in John Ward's decorated career as the radio voice of the Volunteers. Tennessee would win SEC and national championships in 1998 with a quarterback not named Manning leading the way. Excellence, leadership, and a little bit of timely fortune enabled Phil Fulmer to go from being Steve Spurrier's punching boy to a national title-winning equal of the Head Ball Coach. One season dramatically changed a lot of reputations in and around the Tennessee program.

This year, then, Houston Nutt is steadily crafting a season that is unfolding in ways that eerily mirror Fulmer's march to redemption in 1998, the same year Nutt took over the Arkansas program. What painfully goes around is in the process of blessedly coming around for the Razorbacks' head coach. His introduction to life as a sideline boss was heartbreaking, as his successful Arkansas teams of the late 90s were denied bigger prizes by unfortunate events in the heat of battle. His more recent years have been stuffed with struggles, as enigmatic and inconsistent quarterbacks nearly gave him a ticket out of Fayetteville. But now, in 2006, just when his once-sterling reputation had been severely soiled, Houston Nutt has reclaimed his good name. Broyles stood by him when other athletic directors would have had a quicker trigger, and that patience from Nutt's former coach (in 1976, Broyles' last season on a college football sideline) has been amply rewarded in a season where everything has broken right for the Razorbacks.

It's not an embellishment to merely state the obvious: had a Vanderbilt linebacker not dropped a shaky Mitch Mustain pass in the fourth quarter of a Sept. 16 game; had a gust of wind not knocked down a game-winning Commodore field goal at the end of that same contest; had Alabama's Tiffin been Van, and not Leigh, on Sept. 23; and had South Carolina players (on offense and defense) possessed more reliable hands in the end zone, this Arkansas season would currently have a decidedly different feel. But whereas past Arkansas seasons were littered with bad bounces, the ball is bouncing beautifully for the Razorbacks this year, and Nutt--a great teacher of the running game throughout his career in Fayetteville--is deservedly reaping the benefits. His team has gotten some breaks, but much like the '98 Vols, the 2006 Hogs are plenty good. They have Darren McFadden and Marcus Monk, two players who lead by example and are golden in the clutch... much like Al Wilson and Tee Martin under the guidance of a proud Phil Fulmer eight years ago. Nutt's teams haven't won games in an overly pretty way--at least not yet--but neither did the national champion Vols. Tennessee won with the quarterback no one expected to lead the Big Orange to the (Rocky) Top of the college football universe, and this year, the Hogs are winning with a patchwork formula under center. Casey Dick becomes the third man to start at quarterback for Arkansas when he takes the field on Saturday against the Children of the Checkerboard. There are so many ways in which these two teams--the Vols of 1998 and the Hogs of 2006--are joined at the hip. The way in which Phil Fulmer's reputation was restored eight years ago parallels the road Houston Nutt's image is taking this season.

But now we come to the central and defining tension point in this game. For all that Arkansas has achieved in following the trajectory of Tennessee's march to glory in 1998, the Hogs still have to win this game to fully complete the circle.

Houston Nutt's first season at Arkansas was Phil Fulmer's greatest year at Tennessee. Now, however, with Fulmer turning in a very impressive body of work in his 14th full season as the Vols' head coach, it's time for one of Fulmer's better seasons to become the zenith of Nutt's career. And with LSU looming on the Hogs' schedule, this game--against a Volunteer team that's dinged up and vulnerable--might be the Razorbacks' best chance of securing their ticket to Atlanta for a football fight against Florida. If his team can't close the deal against Tennessee, Nutt will watch as the comparisons between the '98 Vols and the '06 Hogs, between Fulmer's fulfillment and his own redemption, fall flat. Houston Nutt needs to win this game to make his regular season complete. A win over Fulmer, his esteemed counterpart, would enable the Hogs to affirm their Autumnal sojourn much as the Vols did against Arkansas on that unforgettably soggy Saturday in Knoxville, nearly eight years ago to the day.

There is already a sense that life has come full circle for Houston Nutt's Hogs and Phil Fulmer's Volunteers when they meet this Saturday under the lights. But for Arkansas, a hard-earned victory must be attained for the circle to be completed... and for the SEC West winner's circle to surround the Fayetteville faithful.

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