HOOVER, Ala. -- College coaches like to measure the growth of their teams over the course of a season. For Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, he knows exactly how his Razorbacks looked when 2014 wrapped up.
“At the end of the year last year, not a lot of people would’ve wanted to play Arkansas,” Bielema said at SEC Media Days on Wednesday.
Yes, Bielema is referring to a team with a 2–14 SEC record under his watch. It’s a team that’s finished last in the SEC West in each of the last two seasons. On paper, that’s not a contender. But anyone who watched Arkansas last year knows it was a different team in December than it was in August. And today the Razorbacks are beginning to look like winning teams of Bielema’s past. Now the challenge is replicating that success against an SEC schedule, and few teams face a tougher road ahead than Arkansas.
The Hogs entered last fall hoping to put Bielema’s forgettable inaugural campaign behind them. Prior to the 2013 season, the coach left a stellar Wisconsin program with the Big Ten under its thumb to rebuild the hapless Razorbacks in the SEC West. Bielema’s first season wasn’t pretty; the Hogs finished 0–8 in the SEC in 2013. But last year Arkansas’ growth began to take shape. It fell to Texas A&M, Alabama and Mississippi State by a touchdown or fewer each. The Razorbacks seemed to be on the cusp of their new coach’s first SEC win.
Bielema and company finally broke through with a 17–0 rout over LSU on Nov. 15, a win the coach called a “special one in my heart.” The next week, they smothered No. 8 Ole Miss 30–0. After a loss to Missouri in the regular season finale, Arkansas put on a defensive clinic in a 31–7 win over Texas in the Texas Bowl. The Longhorns rushed for just two yards in that game. On Wednesday, Bielema described the victory over Texas as “borderline erotic.”
Earlier this week South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier threw some shade at Bielema, saying Arkansas was doing “cartwheels” last year after a seven wins. On Wednesday Bielema said physics wouldn’t allow that. "I don't think this body, with how it's built, no matter how many rockets, can do somersaults,” Bielema said. “… The bottom line is, we were 7–6, and that’s kind of like pop, pop, fizz, fizz.”
Bielema’s point is this: The initial euphoria from Arkansas’ breakthrough has worn off. Now this team wants more. The good news is, this roster is starting to resemble the dominant teams that once defined Bielema as a coach. Prior to arriving at Arkansas, Bielema enjoyed a remarkable run at Wisconsin, winning at least 10 games on four occasions and reaching the Rose Bowl in each of his final three campaigns.
Bielema’s winning formula at Wisconsin was simple: He used multiple running backs, an intelligent quarterback and a beefy offensive line to execute a run-first, pound-the-rock philosophy. In 2010 Wisconsin rode the rushing trio of James White, John Clay and Montee Ball all the way to Pasadena. That trio was four yards short of becoming the first teammates in FBS history to each rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Other players like quarterback Russell Wilson and All-America offensive linemen Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler played equally important roles on offense during Bielema’s tenure. Last year running back Melvin Gordon, a Bielema recruit, finished second in Heisman voting.
Today, as Bielema prepares for his third season at Arkansas, the same formula is being used to rebuild the Razorbacks. They’re the only team in the country to return two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Quarterback Brandon Allen has the most career starts (25) of active SEC quarterbacks, and his five interceptions last season were the fewest by an Arkansas passer since 1992. The roster also returns four offensive linemen, and the Hogs are proud of their big nasties: The team put all five starters on the cover of their media guide. “They deserve every bit of the recognition they get,” Allen said of his line. “It’s a tough job.”
The pieces appear be falling in place for Arkansas. The question is whether Bielema’s offensive recipe will pay off in the SEC. The Razorbacks are still coming off a last-place finish in the SEC West, which is arguably college football’s deepest division, and it’s only getting better. Plus, this season Arkansas must travel to an improved Tennessee and host Missouri, the reigning two-time SEC East champs, as crossover opponents. Yet an unforgiving schedule doesn’t seem to scare Bielema.
“The schedule coming in the SEC is going to be what it is,” Bielema said. “The SEC West, what it is and what it will be in the future, is never really going to change that much. It’s probably become tougher since our arrival, probably because of us.”
Arkansas does have questions on defense, where it must replace stout defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon. But the entire SEC knows what to expect from the Razorbacks’ proven offense. In an era of hurry-up offense—of which Bielema has been a vocal opponent—Arkansas isn’t afraid to stick with what helped the coach win big in the Big Ten.
Last year’s shutout wins over LSU and Ole Miss garnered the biggest headlines for the Hogs, but close battles with Alabama and Mississippi State did more to define the program’s direction in Bielema’s eyes. Arkansas lost those two games against top-10 teams by a combined eight points. Suddenly, Bielema’s players began to realize what they were capable of.
“If we can do all this and lose by one,” Bielema recalls his team asking, “why not do all this and win?”
That’s a good plan, coach. Now let’s see if it works in the toughest conference in college football.