KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee's late collapses in two of its last three games have Volunteers coach Butch Jones facing the most criticism he's encountered since taking over the program.
The Volunteers blew double-digit, fourth-quarter leads in losses to Oklahoma and Florida, causing disgruntled fans to go on talk radio and message boards questioning Jones' game management and his team's ability to close out opponents.
Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC) opened the season with its first Top 25 ranking since September 2012, but the Vols haven't met expectations heading into Saturday's game against Arkansas (1-3, 0-1).
"I understand that's part of the game," Jones said of the criticism. "I welcome that. I have big shoulders. Put that all on my shoulders, so our players can go out and perform Saturday."
Jones said he believed his staff coached well enough to win last week when the Vols lost 28-27 to Florida by giving up two touchdowns in the last five minutes. That result came two weeks after Tennessee squandered a 17-point advantage in a 31-24 overtime loss to Oklahoma.
In both games, Tennessee led by at least 13 points in the fourth quarter. There have been only four other occasions this season in which a team has lost after leading by double digits in the fourth quarter, according to STATS LLC.
Jones noted that his teams historically don't have trouble closing out games.
Only twice in Jones' first eight seasons as a head coach did one of his teams lose a game it led by more than seven points in the fourth quarter. Jones' 2007 Central Michigan team lost 48-45 to Eastern Michigan after leading 38-28 in the fourth. Last season, Tennessee led 9-0 in the fourth quarter of a 10-9 loss to Florida but also erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit in a 45-42 overtime victory at South Carolina.
"We are two plays or 10 seconds away from being 4-0, but we are 2-2," Jones said. "We can't let two plays or 10 seconds define who we are."
Until the last few weeks, Jones had enjoyed an extended honeymoon period, thanks mainly to his ability to connect with fans and prospects. Tennessee ended a string of four straight losing seasons last year and upgraded its talent level by signing top-five recruiting classes each of the last two years.
Tennessee's average home attendance through the first two games of the season is 102,296, up 13.7 percent from its season-ending average the year before Jones' arrival. Tennessee's football program has dramatically improved its grade point average and Academic Progress Rate since Jones took over.
But the program still hasn't made much progress in its won-loss record under Jones, who owns a 14-15 record at Tennessee that includes a 1-12 mark against Top 25 opponents.
In that respect, Jones has much in common with his opposing coach this week. Arkansas' Bret Bielema is 11-18 in his three-year tenure at Arkansas, which has lost three straight games after opening the season ranked 18th.
"Butch is probably going through a lot of the same things we are. ... They're a team that's searching for that identity like we are," Bielema said.
Jones made a number of moves Saturday that backfired, most notably when he didn't go for two after Tennessee scored a touchdown to go up 26-14 with 10:19 remaining. If Tennessee had made a successful two-point conversion, Florida's two late touchdowns would have only tied the game rather than putting the Gators ahead.
Other criticisms involved Tennessee's play selection and handling of the clock down the stretch.
"You can't worry about the outside clutter and the outside distractions," Jones said. "We live in a week-to-week season. Love is conditional. I understand that."
AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Arkansas, contributed to this report.
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