Tennessee-Arkansas was almost a great rivalry. It had real possibilities.
There is a shared river border. The Vols and Razorbacks, among others, battle for the hearts and minds of Memphis.
The coaching tree is impossibly intertwined. Tennessee gave Arkansas John Barnhill, then took Bowden Wyatt and Doug Dickey. Johnny Majors sprung from Fayetteville to his first head-coaching job at Iowa State.
There were a couple of spirited bowl games, one in Memphis the other in Dallas.
And all that was before Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992.
For 11 years, from ‘92 to 2002, the Vols and Razorbacks were annual cross-divisional opponents. Unforgettable memories were forged.
In fact, an Arkansas quarterback generated what may be the most famous play in Tennessee history. For anyone who’s been floating on a raft in the South Pacific since 1998, I’m referring to Clint Stoerner’s fumble.
But then after an exhausting six-overtime ordeal in 2002 — the Vols won 41-38 — things changed.
The SEC fiddled with the scheduling format. Instead of neighbors battling across the backyard fence, Tennessee and Arkansas have become virtual strangers.
The Razorbacks are just another random Western Division school. They show up every now and then.
There were home-and-homes in 2006 and 2007. In the eight years since, there has been but one meeting. It’s one Tennessee would rather forget: a 49-7 rout in 2011.
Saturday, Arkansas returns to Neyland Stadium for the first time since 2007. Neyland Stadium is regarded by Arkansas fans with approximately the same affection that Tennessee fans hold for The Swamp. Bad things happen here.
Arkansas won its first visit, in 1992, but hasn’t won in six trips since.
Here’s a rundown of the almost-great rivalry:
1992: Arkansas, a 21-point underdog, stunned the 5-0, No. 4-ranked Vols 25-24 on a last-second field goal. It was the first of three consecutive losses that would the following month lead to the ouster of Johnny Majors.
Quote: “When you play like crap you end up with crappy results, and you feel like crap.” (UT lineman Brian Spivey)
1993: Heath Shuler led the Vols 28-14 in Little Rock.
Quote: “I hope they tear up a knee right here.” (Arkansas coach Danny Ford, overheard by a Jefferson Pilot sideline TV microphone in the final seconds.)
1994: UT won 38-21. It was Peyton Manning’s third start but Branndon Stewart played six possessions. Each threw an interception. The Vols had five turnovers, Arkansas six.
Quote: “Those two interceptions were dumb plays. They’re not rookies any more. … It’s October now. Now is the time for them to make better decisions.” (Phillip Fulmer)
1995: Joey Kent caught 13 Manning passes to tie a school record in a 49-31 Tennessee romp.
Quote: “I haven’t scored 31 points and lost very many times in my life.” (Danny Ford)
1996: The Vols dominated 55-14, one week after being stunned by Memphis.
Quote: “Practice was really tense all week and there were a lot of fights. There were about 100 pissed-off Volunteers going into this game. Everybody was on our butts, and the coaches, everybody was on their butts.’’ (DT Bill Duff)
1997: UT gutted out a 30-22 win in Little Rock over a 25-point underdog. Peyton Manning caught his first career pass, from tailback Jamal Lewis. No UT quarterback caught a pass since until Joshua Dobbs at Florida last Saturday.
Quote: “That was my first reception. Jamal kind of hung it out there. Maybe next time I’ll float one there to him.” (Manning)
1998: You know the story. Clint Stoerner. Fumble. Vols win 28-24. National title.
Quote: “Basically, I blew it. There’s nothing else to it. If I hold onto the ball, we win the ballgame. No question about it.” (Clint Stoerner)
1999: Same score as last year, 28-24, but Arkansas won. The Vols had risen to No. 2 in the BCS rankings but this one squelched their hopes of a return to the title game.
Quote: “This ruins everything we had planned for the rest of the season. It’s devastating. . . . It hurts worse than the Florida loss, actually.” (Tee Martin)
2000: Casey Clausen fired five TD passes in a 63-20 rout. The Vols led 35-0 after the first quarter.
Quote: “Arkansas commits to stopping the run and we didn’t make them pay the last two years. We did this year.” (Fulmer)
2001: Three days before the 9/11 attacks, Travis Stephens rushed for 206 yards and tied a school record with 41 carries in a 13-3 win in Fayetteville.
Quote: “We kept pounding the rock, as we like to say, and we finally got it broken.” (Fulmer)
2002: A 17-17 regulation tie went six overtimes before Jason Witten ended it with a 25-yard TD catch from Casey Clausen. The 41-38 thriller was the longest game in UT history.
Quote: “(Fulmer) said ‘Don’t ever question me for moving you to tight end’ or something like that. I’m not going to question him anymore.” (Jason Witten)
2006: Darren McFadden rushed for 181 yards and two TDs, and threw another TD pass out of the Wild-Hog formation in a 31-14 Arkansas win in Fayetteville.
Quote: “People just weren’t where they needed to be. With (McFadden taking direct snaps), offense is a different game.” (UT linebacker Ryan Karl)
2007: McFadden was on his way to a second consecutive Doak Walker Award but the Vols held him to 117 yards in a 34-13 UT win.
Quote: “I’m gonna be real with you, they whipped our (rears) last year. I feel like we returned the favor.” (UT’s Demonte Bolden)
2011: On a forgettable night in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks embarrassed the Vols 49-7, dropping Tennessee to 0-6 SEC for the first time ever.
Quote: “We’re getting a lot of scars this year. It’s like we’re in an advanced class of beat-down learning.” (Derek Dooley)