Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
KNOXVILLE -- The strength and conditioning ties that bind Tennessee and Ole Miss will culminate today at noon in Oxford, when two of the Southeastern Conference's best fourth-quarter football teams will battle for January postseason positioning.
The Volunteers (5-4, 2-3) and the Rebels (6-3, 2-3) have dominated the fourth quarter, outscoring their opponents 76-23 and 61-29. UT has outscored SEC foes 40-13 in the final period, and Ole Miss has a 13-3 fourth-quarter advantage in league play.
Vols junior All-America safety Eric Berry pointed to associate head coach Ed Orgeron and strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus, who were the head coach and strength and conditioning coach at Ole Miss until last season.
"They were under Coach Orgeron and Coach Ausmus, so it's not a surprise that they are a good fourth-quarter team," Berry said. "I would say it's all about the way your strength and conditioning coaches train you in the offseason. And during the season, it's how you practice."
Whatever the reason, UT and Ole Miss hope to channel that fourth-quarter success into unbeaten runs during the final quarter of this season.
Vols head coach Lane Kiffin was annoyed throughout the fourth quarter of last week's 56-28 win over Memphis because his reserves didn't finish strong against the Tigers' starters. UT started playing backups after one possession in the third quarter, when they held a commanding 49-7 advantage.
"I don't care who's in the game, we need to finish strong every single week," Kiffin said. "We talk all the time about being a great fourth-quarter team, and for most of the year we've done that. We've outscored our opponents by a bunch of points. I believe last week was the only fourth quarter we've lost all year. Now it translates into the fourth quarter of the season, and it's about finishing. And in the offseason, your offseason workouts, finishing in the classroom, finishing on the practice field and then finishing games.
"Hopefully that will carry over, and we'll be a good fourth-quarter season team."
Some Vols players have developed great impressions of their coaches talking about finishing plays and finishing plays, in part because they hear it every day.
"When you look at a good football team, that's what you look at -- how you finish," UT defensive end Wes Brown said. "Coach Kiffin has really hammered that point. It starts in practice, and it carries over to the game. As soon as we step on the practice field, we're going 100 percent until the end, so I think that has a lot to do with it.
"We're still practicing as hard as we were at the start of fall camp. It never slacks off. That's what's so special about this team. We're jumping through hoops, we're so excited about practice, and we're having fun out here, and that's carrying throughout the whole season."
Kiffin admitted he'll never get through an entire practice without discussing what he considers a top priority.
"I don't know that they'll ever completely get it," he said. "You've just got to keep pounding away at it and show examples of it and talk about it in practice and create a competitive atmosphere late in the practice, so it's comparable to a game."
Both teams were dealt key defensive blows this week when UT freshman safety Janzen Jackson (attempted armed robbery arrest) and Ole Miss senior defensive end Greg Hardy (broken wrist) were ruled out for the game. Neither head coach used those setbacks as an excuse, though, and both expect their teams to continue controlling the game's late moments.
And whichever team wins today's fourth quarter will leave Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium with a bowl-eligible win. Ole Miss already has six victories, but only one victory over an NCAA Division I FCS team counts toward bowl eligibility.
"It's huge. It doesn't get any bigger than this," Rebels coach Houston Nutt said. "It's always about recruiting, because it's year-round. It's about bowl participation, because it gives you extra practice.
"It's big -- bigger than big."
Kiffin was slightly more cautious, holding firm to his yearlong claim that no first-year coaching staff faces a "must-win" game.
"We need to develop our roster," Kiffin said. "We need to recruit. We need to continue to improve. We need to establish discipline. We're never going to play a must-win game, because I don't ... What does that mean? Are we going to coach harder? Are we going to play harder because it's a must-win game?
"We don't ever talk that way, nor will we ever talk that way. We just need to improve and play fundamentally sound."
UT redshirt freshman offensive tackle Aaron Douglas spoke more like Nutt, though.
"Definitely, this is a huge game," said Douglas, the SEC offensive lineman of the week. "Not only is it an SEC game, but this could clinch a bowl appearance for us.
"We definitely have an excited attitude going into this one, and we hope to go down to Oxford and play well."
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.