Hogs, Vols eager to redirect season

Tennessee coach Butch Jones (left) and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema are off to a rough start in their third season coaching their respective programs. (AP Photos)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Great news for Bret Bielema and Butch Jones.

One of them is guaranteed to walk off the football field a winner Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.

That will be a nice change for one of the coaches, because both have caught their share of the heat over the first month of the season after getting off to poor starts. Bielema's Arkansas Razorbacks will take a 1-3 record into Saturday's game, while Jones' Tennessee Volunteers are 2-2. Both teams blew fourth-quarter leads while losing their SEC openers last week.

Now the teams that were the off-season darlings of their respective SEC divisions find themselves just trying to fight off a season of major disappointment.

"Butch is probably going through a lot of the same things we are," Bielema said. "They're a team searching for that identity like we are."

Jones agreed.

"They're basically in the same situation as we are," he said. "They've had some gut-wrenching losses where they could've won the football game. It's a play here. It's a play there."

Arkansas has lost consecutive games to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. In last week's 28-21 loss to the Aggies, Arkansas held a 21-13 lead with the ball midway through the fourth quarter before losing 28-21 in overtime.

Tennessee gave away two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter of its losses to Oklahoma and Florida.

"I think both of us need this game and need it bad," said Sam Pittman, who coached at Tennessee in 2012 before joining Bielema's first staff at Arkansas.

Many analysts paired the Hogs and Vols together as dark horse teams on the rise during the offseason. National pollsters agreed. Arkansas was ranked No. 18 in The Associated Press Top 25 and No. 20 in the USA Today coaches poll to open the season, while Tennessee was No. 25 in both polls.

Things haven't worked out that way, and both teams are hearing it loudly from detractors while trying to figure out how to close out opponents.

"They know it's tough and we know it's tough when you can't close out games, but the biggest thing we're working on is us," Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said. "We're working on anything we can do to improve close games. We're not worried about them."

Arkansas, smacked with a rash of injuries to skill position players Jonathan Williams, Keon Hatcher, Cody Hollister, Jared Cornelius and Kody Walker, as well as a couple of defenders, is 0-9 in games decided by seven points or less in three seasons under Bielema. The Hogs have held fourth-quarter leads in seven of their past nine SEC losses.

In an effort to shake the fourth-quarter blues, Bielema said last week that he wanted to be more aggressive on fourth down, telling offensive coordinator Dan Enos on three different third-down plays that he had two downs to convert.

"I was trying to think of different ways we could help our players out and have success in the fourth quarter, so I really wanted to be a lot more aggressive," Bielema said.

Leading 21-13 and facing fourth and 3 from the Texas A&M 35, the Razorbacks were about to run a play before tackle Denver Kirkland committed a false start penalty that forced the Hogs to punt.

In Tennessee's 28-27 loss at Florida last week, the Vols' clock management, substitution principles and Jones' failure to go for a two-point conversion when leading 26-14 in the fourth quarter all drew extra criticism.

Tennessee' Jalen Hurd scored on a 10-yard run with 10:19 remaining to give Tennessee a 26-14 lead, and Jones elected to kick the extra point for a 13-point lead.

"Everyone second guesses everything that you do," Jones said. "That's the nature of the game. ... Everyone has a right to an opinion. I think we're putting ourselves in positions to win football games."

The Gators rallied with two touchdowns in the final 4:09 to take the lead, and Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley's 55-yard field-goal try missed by inches to the right as the clock ran out.

"Football rewards those individuals who persevere," Jones said. "The only thing I can say is keep working. We have a fourth-quarter period in practice and we'll continue to make it a point of emphasis."

Bielema said he and his staff took a long look in the offseason at the team's fourth-quarter issues from 2014.

"How are we calling plays on offense, defense? We keep going back and asking our players and coaches is there a conditioning factor there, and there's no doubt in my mind, we're playing harder than. Our body language is better than anybody out there.

"I think you can overthink a situation like that too much. I get it. I know the stats. I know the numbers.

"Again, once they feel it. Once they have one guy rise up and make a play, hopefully it's going to turn the tide forever."

Sports on 10/02/2015