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Arkansas Takes Two Big Steps Forward, But Remain One Step Back in Win over Tennessee

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The Arkansas Razorbacks (2-3, 1-1) notched a big win on Saturday, topping the Tennessee Volunteers (2-3, 0-2) 24-20 on the road. The win was head coach Bret Bielema’s first SEC road victory since taking over the program in 2013. Above all else, the win keeps the Razorbacks in the conversation for a shot at a SEC West title, no matter how probable that goal may be, and a second consecutive bowl berth.

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The Razorbacks did a lot of great things on the field from top to bottom against Tennessee. Besides netting the important victory, the Hogs stuck to the ground game, producing 275 yards rushing on their way to 494 yards of total offense. The other two things that cannot be understated is the team’s belief in one another along with the coaching staff. That belief showed through when down 14-0 midway through the first quarter the team did not give up and finally found a way to close out a tight game.

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Prior to Saturday, Bielema's Arkansas teams were 0-9 in games decided by seven points or less. The Razorbacks entered this one riding a tough three-game losing streak, a streak in which all three contests could have easily gone the other way (Toledo 16-12, Texas Tech 35-24, and Texas A&M 28-21 in overtime). The road ahead does not get any easier with a Week 6 showdown against No. 8 Alabama, but these Razorbacks do appear to be gelling as a unit, which should help the team navigate the second half of its schedule after the trip to Tuscaloosa. Just one thing keeps holding Arkansas back, year after year.

With the positives like the ground attack shaping up, a reduction in costly penalties, and playing a clean game without any turnovers comes the negative. As has been the case over the last two seasons the special teams unit, more directly the kicking game, is not up to the level of a SEC-contending squad.

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Arkansas’ special teams was dinged on the opening kickoff when Evan Berry returned it 96 yards to put Tennessee on top 7-0. Arkansas would add to its own misery in the third quarter when Cole Hedlund’s 22-yard field goal attempt was blocked. The missed field goal was attributed to Matt Emrich’s hold. Emrich has not had a mistake like that previously, but it always seems to be something with Arkansas’ special teams, and usually it's more negative than positive.

Perhaps the biggest head scratcher the Hogs pulled was a fourth quarter fake field goal attempt from the Tennessee 10-yard line. Arkansas was up 24-20 facing a fourth-and-goal. Instead of trusting its kicker to stretch the lead to seven in the event of another overtime game, the Hogs rolled the dice on putting six on the board, instead turning to last year’s primary field goal kicker, Adam McFain.

One could easily understand why Arkansas might switch field goal kickers, replacing Cole Hedlund with McFain. Hedlund after all is 5-for-8 on the season having missed a 41-yarder against Toledo, a 37-yarder against Texas Tech, and a 22-yard attempt earlier in this game. But to have McFain try and run it in for a touchdown?

McFain reportedly has a good 40-yard dash time running straight ahead without any collegiate defenders trying to stop him, but he clearly looked uncomfortable trying to put the ball into the end zone against Tennessee, as he seemed more interested in not getting hit rather than lowering his shoulder to try and get into the end zone.

Considering the circumstances — a three-game losing streak, being 0-for on the road in the SEC since coming to Arkansas, and 0-9 in games decided by seven points or fewer — why would Bielema even try a fake field goal with a guy uncomfortable with the ball in his hands instead of letting his first-team offense take a shot?

Pop culture from the '70s has led American music consumers to believe that “two out of three ain’t bad,” but two out of three ain’t going to win a SEC West title or contend for a national championship. Two of Arkansas’ three phases of the game were good against Tennessee but when will all three be good again?

In 2014, Arkansas, in part, lost a chance to defeat then-No. 6 Texas A&M after kicker John Henson missed a 44-yard attempt in regulation. The Hogs would go on to lose the game to the Aggies, 35-28 in overtime. Also in 2014, against then-No. 7 Alabama (a week later), a missed point after attempt cost Arkansas an opportunity to go into overtime for a chance to win another big game. Again in 2014, against No. 1 Mississippi State, McFain missed a 42-yard attempt early in the fourth quarter. The Hogs would go on to lose 17-10.

Did each missed kick directly affect the outcome of the game? Yes and no. Game decisions are made based off the points on the board, down and distance, and time remaining. The debate is there to be had without a clear winner but what would be even better for the media, the Arkansas players and staff, and Razorback Nation alike is making any discussion regarding these missed kicks moot by clearing up the poor special teams play.

The special teams coordinator for the Hogs is Jemal Singleton, who also is the running backs coach. One could argue why a running backs coach is in charge of telling field goal kickers and punters how to do their job. A greater emphasis on the third phase of the game is clearly needed at Arkansas but when will that be addressed, after a few more missed kicks that may cost Arkansas a chance at a bowl game in 2015?

— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.