HOOVER, Ala. — Bret Bielema was armed with some humor about last season’s debacle when he addressed the room at SEC Media Days on Wednesday.
Arkansas’ second-year coach wanted to take a minute to talk about his 3-9 debut last fall. But that was all the disappointment — which included nine straight losses to end the year and an 0-8 record in SEC play — deserved.
“Pause … and move on,” Bielema said as the room filled with laughter.
Last season certainly wasn’t what Bielema and the Razorbacks expected when they kicked off a new era with a resounding thud. But an optimistic group that included Bielema, defensive end Trey Flowers, offensive lineman Brey Cook and safety Alan Turner toured the Wynfrey Hotel during a three-hour media blitz Wednesday insisting they’ve turned the page after one of the worst seasons in school history.
Arkansas unofficially began its second year under Bielema on Wednesday and it looked and sounded much like the first. The Razorbacks — who will certainly be at the bottom of the SEC West standings when the media’s preseason poll is announced Thursday — understand expectations are low. And they’re fine with it.
They’ll continue to hold steady to the program’s plan to build from the inside out.
“You have to be true to who you are, what you’ve been,” Bielema said. “Don’t flinch. A lot of times there’s some teams that go through some adversity — for sure a team that doesn’t win a game in their conference — they’re going to change out philosophy, get a new idea, new this, new that.
“I believe you have to do what you do better.”
It’s no secret Arkansas has plenty of room for improvement after finishing 12th in the SEC in scoring offense (20.7 points) and scoring defense (30.8 points).
The Razorbacks’ run-oriented offense did produce a pair of productive backs in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who will team with Korliss Marshall this season to form a three-headed backfield. But the passing attack lagged behind.
There were equally detrimental issues defensively. Arkansas had a solid defensive front, but struggled to make plays in the back seven. Fittingly, the season ended with a busted assignment against LSU that led to a game-winning, big-play touchdown.
“There were a few games we could’ve won at the end, but they didn’t go our way because we had a mental breakdown that led to a big play and the result didn’t end the way we wanted to,” Arkansas safety Alan Turner said. “I feel like us as players, we embraced that and during this offseason we’re trying to correct that and just keep moving forward. If we do that, the results will change.”
Turner said Arkansas is eyeing the one-year turnaround of Auburn and Missouri as inspiration that it can be done. Both programs struggled in 2012, but rebounded to meet in the SEC Championship Game last December.
Offensive lineman Brey Cook believes the Hogs are capable of the same.
“Obviously, our goal is Atlanta,” Cook said. “That is something we strive for every day. It starts with Auburn and it keeps going week-in, week-out. We still have that 1-0 mentality. I’m going to come into tomorrow and fight like that’s all there is — tomorrow. Coming into the weight room, into the practice field, whatever it takes.”
Of course, the path seems much more unrealistic for the Razorbacks.
For starters, Arkansas must get confident quarterback play from Brandon Allen after his injury-hampered season and more production from receivers and tight ends to improve its passing attack. Bielema believes the offseason should help.
“I think the No. 1 thing offensively is, again, just more familiarity with our players,” Bielema said. “In particular the quarterback. It all stars there as we all know,” Bielema said. “He touches the ball on every play. So I think the confidence he’ll have in not only just his own ability, but the ability of players around him.”
There were three coaching changes on Bielema’s defensive staff after the difficult debut, including new coordinator Rob Moore. The Razorbacks are hopeful an aggressive, attacking approach will cure last year’s ills.
“I think defensively if we can just become more aggressive at every position, D-Line, linebacker, DBs, if we just play with a little bit more physicality, a little bit more confidence a little more swagger we’re going to get better,” Bielema said.
Bielema believes depth has improved across the board. So has Arkansas’ understanding of the game and what it takes to win. He added the Razorbacks’ efforts in other areas serve as signs players are determined to end the struggles.
“Our community service. Our kids aren’t getting in trouble, off-the-field issues,” Bielema said. “We’re doing positive things that lead me to believe they’re learning and understanding what we’re asking them to do.
“When that comes full circle we’re going to start to win.”
And winning, of course, is the secret to longevity in the SEC.
It’s something Bielema was able to achieve throughout his seven-year run at Wisconsin, finishing with three Rose Bowl berths before leaving for Arkansas. But he and the Razorbacks enter the season trying to snap a 12-game SEC losing streak, which dates back to a 49-7 win against Kentucky on Oct. 13, 2012.
Bielema was asked Wednesday about the biggest adjustment he faced after leaving the Big Ten for the SEC. He said the answer was “quite simple.”
“Winning vs. losing,” Bielema said. “I didn’t come here to lose.”