Arkansas, Tennessee desperate to salvage seasons
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Bret Bielema didn't sleep well Saturday night after losing his third straight game, dropping him to 11-18 in his three seasons as Arkansas coach.
It was likely a difficult slumber that night for fellow third-year coach Butch Jones at Tennessee, too.
The struggling Razorbacks (1-3, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) travel to Knoxville on Saturday to face a Volunteers team mired in fourth-quarter misery. Maybe one of the coaches can get a good night's sleep afterward.
What was thought by some in the preseason as a game between two SEC up-and-comers has morphed into something completely different entering Saturday - with two programs desperate to salvage what they can after equally disappointing starts to the season.
''We both need a win; that's what it is,'' Bielema said. ''That's all that matters.''
Arkansas began this season ranked 18th and full of expectations after a late-season surge a year ago. After three seasons of drudgery following the Bobby Petrino firing and ensuing scandal, the Razorbacks finished 7-6 after wins in three of their final four games.
The dominating fashion of the late wins, including shutouts over LSU and Mississippi and a 31-7 victory over Texas in the Texas Bowl, was enough to convince some that Arkansas was nearly ready to regain its foothold among the contenders in the SEC West.
However, following crushing nonconference defeats to Toledo and Texas Tech, the Razorbacks lost for the second straight time in overtime to Texas A&M last week - a game in which Arkansas led 21-13 for most of the fourth quarter.
The 28-21 loss dropped the Razorbacks to 0-9 under Bielema in games decided by fewer than 10 points, and Bielema's voice cracked with emotion at times afterward. Still, despite the mounting frustration, Bielema said the players were in good spirits at practice on Sunday.
''Our kids aren't flinching an inch,'' Bielema said. ''I really don't believe that they'll go anything but over to Tennessee and expect to have success and play a four-quarter game or overtime game, whatever we need to do, to have success.''
As frustrating as Arkansas' recent seasons have been, the last month has been nothing short of heartbreaking for Tennessee (2-2, 0-1), which some expected to challenge for the SEC East title this season.
Twice in the last three weeks, the Volunteers have let double-digit fourth-quarter leads slip away - once in a 31-24 overtime loss to No. 15 Oklahoma and last week in a 28-27 defeat at Florida.
Like Arkansas with Bielema, Tennessee emerged from a transitional first year under Jones in 2013 to finish strong last season with four wins in its final five games on the way to a 7-6 record and TaxSlayer Bowl win over Iowa.
Any leftover good feelings from the preseason about the Volunteers are sparse this week in Knoxville. And Tennessee and Jones are feeling the pressure that comes after being outscored 49-24 in the fourth quarter and overtime this season - after outscoring opponents 141-50 through the first three quarters.
''It comes down, again, to closing games out, which we're all aware of, and we had many opportunities to do that,'' Jones said. ''In order to improve and correct this, we must own it. It starts with me first and foremost, and it starts with everyone within our football organization.''
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.