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Tennessee and Arkansas show they weren't ready for limelight

Will Saturday's losses merely be stumbling blocks on the path to better things for Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Tennessee's Butch Jones? USA TODAY Sports

All too often we look past the warning signs. We blow through blinking red and yellow lights and ignore all sense of caution. We get caught up, and before long the bandwagon we’re on has turned into a runaway hype train staring down a brick wall known as reality.

The season arrives and the truth hurts.

In the case of Tennessee, Saturday’s loss was more of a fender bender as the No. 23-ranked Vols fell in double overtime to perennial powerhouse Oklahoma.

But for No 18. Arkansas, its loss to Toledo felt like a head-on collision. Not even last year’s Razorbacks would have been expected to lose in nearby Little Rock to the three-touchdown underdogs.

As it turns out, neither team was ready for the limelight. Both were too young. Both were too inexperienced. Both were too, well, incomplete.

What Bret Bielema and Butch Jones have accomplished at Arkansas and Tennessee, respectively, is nothing short of impressive. In the span of less than three years, they’ve dusted off beaten-down programs and turned them into contenders. But contenders for what? Right now they’re not ready for the title hunt. They’re still a recruiting class or two away from having the roster of elite teams like Alabama and Georgia.

Losses like the ones they suffered this past weekend we should have seen coming.

Yes, Arkansas has talent. The Hogs’ offensive line is massive and running back Alex Collins and tight end Hunter Henry will play on Sundays. But the passing game, the same one that’s held Arkansas back since Bielema’s arrival, still hasn’t progressed to the point of being able to win a game. Inside the red zone, Brandon Allen's QBR fell from 87.0 to 1.0, thanks to 2-of-11 passing, no touchdowns and one interception. It still doesn’t fully explain the SEC’s first loss to a MAC opponent in 36 games, but it’s a start.

Tennessee, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. A double-overtime loss to a ranked Oklahoma team isn’t altogether unexpected and doesn’t in itself signal that the Vols are in trouble. But when you blow a 17-point lead and give up all three of Oklahoma’s passing touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime, it says something about you. It says you haven’t learned to finish. And make no mistake, until you learn that, you haven’t learned how to win.

All offseason, we heard Jones try to downplay expectations. At every turn, he’d tell you that upward of 60 percent of his players were in their first or second year in the program. Letting Oklahoma off the hook at home in Neyland Stadium was brutal, but it was also a matter of growing pains.

“So what do you do? You roll your sleeves up, you come back at it tomorrow and you work and you let this drive you, you let this fuel you,” Jones told reporters after the game. “I told them, never lose this feeling. The day you don’t feel like coming to practice or you don’t feel like working hard, think about how you feel right now.”

If he and Bielema play their cards right, Saturday becomes a teaching moment, a stumbling block on the way to bigger and better things.

They were too young for greatness this year. But that says nothing of what’s to come.