At SEC Media Days in Birmingham last summer, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema addressed a room of reporters as he previewed the season. “I'll take a minute to talk about last year,” Bielema said. He took a long pause. “That's about all I need to do.”
Nothing really needed to be said about the Razorbacks’ 2013 campaign. In Bielema’s first season in Fayetteville, the Hogs lost nine straight games to end the year and finished 3-9. That mark included a 0-8 SEC record. The learning curve appeared steep for Bielema, who left a Wisconsin program fresh off three straight Rose Bowl berths to inherit an SEC bottom-feeder.
On Monday, Arkansas put a bow on a season that put last year’s forgettable campaign behind it. Bielema’s crew embarrassed Texas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl to finish 7-6. One year ago, the Razorbacks looked as far away from SEC contention as any team in the league. Now, the Hogs are bowl champions and on the cusp of returning to relevance.
Arkansas didn’t seem fazed by the common advice not to mess with Texas. In fact, it floored the gas and didn’t let up against the Longhorns. The Hogs jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the second quarter before Texas running back Johnathan Gray fumbled in his own end zone. Arkansas’ Taiwan Johnson hopped on the loose ball to give his team a 17-0 lead with 8:13 until halftime.
Bielema’s defense did a stellar job against Tyrone Swoopes and the Texas offense. The ‘Horns managed a stunning 59 yards of offense on 43 plays (1.37 yards per play). At the beginning of the fourth quarter, coach Charlie Strong’s team had 23 total yards. This is a Texas team that matured as the season progressed –- which points to a positive future under Strong –- but it simply didn’t show up in Houston.
For the Razorbacks, seven wins won’t lead to an SEC title, especially in the SEC West. However, Bielema simply needed to take a step forward with this roster this year. One could argue Arkansas took a few big steps. It earned its first SEC win under Bielema with a 17-0 win over LSU on Nov. 15. The Razorbacks routed Ole Miss 30-0 the next week. They also lost close games to Alabama and Texas A&M. No matter who the Hogs faced, they showed plenty of fight.
Arkansas won’t reach a New Year’s bowl anytime soon if it can’t hang with the SEC West’s big boys. But the program graduated from SEC doormat to conference spoiler in just one season, and there’s no telling what the future holds under Bielema. The Razorbacks can now enjoy some momentum during the offseason, which they didn’t have last year. Next season, that should at least give Bielema something to talk about.