Right about the time Butch Jones was consulting the most unpopular chart since Justin Bieber was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Bret Bielema was preparing to lose for the third time in four games.
It’s tough to imagine two coaches under more scrutiny or pressure to win in the SEC by their fan bases than these two, who differ in approach both in games and at the microphone. Jones is as measured and planned as they come. He might as well read off a teleprompter during press conferences and has perfected the art of the platitude. Bielema, on the other hand, is the uncle who won’t stop telling you how much he loves Donald Trump after six Budweisers.
The third-year Arkansas head coach was recently caught up in a war of words with Texas Tech's Kilff Kingsbury (the only coach in NCAA history to wear a flower lapel to a post-game presser) after the Red Raiders beat Bielema’s Hogs, and Big Bret isn’t afraid to tell you how he feels — no Budweisers needed.
But for as different as the two guys standing on the opposite sides of Neyland Stadium Saturday will be in style and personality, they are nearly identical right now in their plights.
Both coaches took over clunkers in need of giant overhauls, and have now broken down in the cars they’re trying to fix. Jones slides into this game at 2-2 after gut wrenching blown leads to Oklahoma and Florida. He now owns two of the only three losses in 2015 in which a team was up by 13 or more points in the fourth quarter.
Bielema lost to Toledo this season.
OK, so maybe there are some differences here, but it’s hard not to call this game the Ice Cream Bowl, because one of these two fan bases will collectively get diabetes after sitting on the couch pounding Blue Bell when a defeat spirals their program further into desperation.
Tennessee is clearly the better team coming in, and the Vols have been more talented, albeit still young, in each of their first four games. Despite struggling to throw the ball, as evidenced by just three wide receivers catching passes against Florida as Tennessee managed just 83 yards in the air, the Vols’ run game has been one of the best in the country, averaging 248 yards per contest.
The defense is pretty solid, too, until its do-or-die time (opponents have a 90 percent conversion rate on fourth down against the Vols so far this season). Other than that, the D has done its job and put the team in a position to win.
The only thing Team 119 can’t do is close. They’re like your friend in college who could talk to a girl at the bar but could never get her number. Sure, it's probably because he’s still wearing a puka shell necklace in 2015, but still.
It’s certainly not time for panic mode in Knoxville yet. Jones is just four games into a 12 game season in his third year at the helm after completely overhauling a roster that at one time didn’t have a two-deep of scholarship offensive lineman. He also uses signing day to flash more stars than a telescope, yet he’ll soon have to prove he can close out a big game after starting off his Tennessee tenure at 14-15.
Bielema has also failed to get over the hump in that regard. Arkansas has lost 14 straight one-possession games, and the former Wisconsin head coach may be under more pressure than Jones at the moment, seeing as how Arkansas hasn’t matched Tennessee’s prowess on the recruiting trail.
A home loss to a 1-3 SEC team with a MAC defeat on its resume would do nothing but stoke the growing flames of impatience and scorn as the leaves change colors in Knoxville.
One of these teams will have to win Saturday, and that team should be Tennessee. The Vols absolutely need this game as a springboard into the heart of their SEC slate, and a win over a physical, smashmouth Razorback squad that attempts to eat clock and grind teams into dust would do wonders for both Tennessee’s psyche and its fan base’s health. Butch Jones called it a must-win game Wednesday simply because he considers every game a must-win game. But this one is even mustier.
The Vols should win Saturday. They need to win Saturday. They must win Saturday.
And you don’t need a chart to figure that one out.