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After failed 2013 season, Arkansas looking up in SEC West

After failed 2013 season, Arkansas looking up in SEC West Photo:

HOOVER, Ala. -- There wasn't a lot of talking in Arkansas's locker room after last year's 31-27 loss to LSU in the Razorbacks' regular-season finale. The loss, Arkansas' nine straight, dropped the Hogs' record to 3-9 and a perfectly imperfect 0-8 mark in the SEC in coach Bret Bielema's first year with the program. For all intents and purposes, the wheels had come off in every way possible for an Arkansas program just beginning a new era.

"There wasn't a whole lot to say," senior guard Brey Cook recalled on Wednesday. "Everyone knew what had happened."

Bielema in particular wasn't used that kind of futility. This was a coach who came to Fayetteville fresh off taking Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls as Big Ten champs. Instead of a near-immediate turnaround from the one-year tenure of John L. Smith, who succeeded the ousted Bobby Petrino, Arkansas fans quickly realized the learning curve under Bielema might be steeper than originally expected. Contending in the SEC West would hardly be an overnight process.

At SEC Media Days on Wednesday, Bielema and Arkansas players were frank about the program's relative implosion in 2013. In his opening statement to reporters, Bielema said he'd begin by addressing last year's season for one minute. He paused. "That's about all I need to do," the coach said with a grin.

The implication was obvious: This program isn't dwelling on the failures of last season. Instead, Bielema and company are working to replicate the success he found at Wisconsin. An immediate fix might not be on the horizon, but the theme for the Razorbacks' season should be progress in some form, something that will at least illustrate Bielema and the Razorbacks are on the right track.

Arkansas 2014 Schedule
 
date opponent
Aug. 30 at Auburn
Sept. 6 Nicholls State
Sept. 13 at Texas Tech
Sept. 20 Northern Illinois
Sept. 27 Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas)
Oct. 11 Alabama
Oct. 18 Georgia
Oct. 25 UAB
Nov. 1 at Mississippi State
Nov. 15 LSU
Nov. 22 Ole Miss
Nov. 28 at Missouri

Few SEC teams are getting as little attention as Arkansas this offseason, which is due to the program's struggles last fall and the improvement of the SEC West as a whole. On paper, each of the Razorbacks' divisional foes looks to be in better position to contend this season. That notion isn't surprising Arkansas's players.

"We notice that," safety Alan Turner said. "But, I mean, we kind of expected that from the results we put up last year. We just want to change that."

Here's what Hogs' players are also noticing: Teams like Auburn and Missouri were sitting in these same seats at the Birmingham Hyatt Regency last year and answering the same questions about failure. Those two teams combined to win just two SEC games in 2012. All they did the year after was meet in the SEC title game.

Nobody is predicting Arkansas to reach Atlanta this year. But the Razorbacks aren't blind to the progress a team can make in one season's time.

"Last year, we obviously lost a lot of games," Cook said. "If you didn’t come out of that learning something, you definitely lost. We took stuff from those experiences just like Auburn did the year, just like Missouri did the year. We’ve really worked on that."

Plenty of pressure lays on the shoulders of Bielema, and for good reason. The coach showed what he can do with a major college program during his time in Madison. But Bielema doesn't need these Hogs to shock the world and contend for a conference title in 2014; he just needs to show some signs of progress -- perhaps at least one big step somewhere in 2014. 

Many players said they felt signs of growth in the final weeks of last season. The Razorbacks ended the 2013 season with the close loss to LSU after falling to Mississippi State in overtime the previous week. On Wednesday players said the team took small steps during those games, whether or not they were reflected in the win column.

"Everyone saw the improvements that happened, maybe the things that outsiders didn’t see," Cook said. "We saw that in film. We saw the little things that were being done right that weren’t at the beginning of the season."

With nowhere to go but up, Arkansas will look different in 2014 by default. The Hogs lost defensive coordinator Chris Ash to Ohio State before bringing in Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers coach Robb Smith to head up the unit. Smith is Arkansas's third defensive coordinator in three seasons, but a fresh voice might be just what this team needed -- especially after allowing 6.0 yards per play last season, 25th worst in the nation.

The program doesn't have much time to work out its kinks -- Arkansas travels to Auburn to open the season on Aug. 30. But the Hogs do host Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Georgia in Fayetteville, three potential upsets that would be be major building blocks for the program.

On Wednesday Bielema and his players didn't allude to any unreasonable goals for 2014, whether division titles or SEC crowns. But the notion of improvement lingered in everything they said. Whatever that next step becomes is up to Bielema.

"As close as we are, the proof is going to be in our pudding in every aspect of our program," Bielema said. "If you sat down and interviewed my AD, I think he would tell you in every aspect other than wins, or people that are inside our program on a daily basis, you can't do anything but be happy with what we've done."

How can Arkansas climb out of the SEC cellar?

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples and Zac Ellis discuss how soon until Arkansas becomes a respectable team in the SEC West.

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