FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas’ Bret Bielema began reflecting on the 2013 season, the first-year coach was immediately reminded of his final year at Wisconsin.
The Badgers opened Big Ten play in 2012 with a disappointing 30-27 loss at Nebraska on Sept. 29. There was plenty of frustration to go around. But eight weeks later, the Badgers got their chance for redemption and turned it into a dominant 70-31 win against the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten title game.
“I knew what our team was going to do in eight weeks,” Bielema said about that Wisconsin team last week before turning his thoughts back to the Razorbacks. “Just like what I know this team is going to do over the next six months. And when that happens, and the worm turns, I’m going to enjoy it a great amount.”
It would be well earned, too, because the 2013 season was eye-opening proof that Bielema and his staff have their work cut out for them.
Today marks one year since Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long hired Bielema to restore a program that had endured a difficult 2012, beginning with Bobby Petrino’s abrupt dismissal in April and continuing through a 4-8 season under interim coach John L. Smith. The new coach had just led the Badgers to their third consecutive Big Ten title and said during his official introduction that he wanted to come to college football’s best conference to guide the Razorbacks to their first SEC crown.
The 2013 season was a harsh intro to the SEC. Under Bielema’s watch, Arkansas has never been further from winning a conference championship, going winless in Southeastern Conference play for the first time since joining the league in 1992.
The 0-8 SEC season — capped by the heart-breaking, 31-27 loss at LSU last Friday — was among the record-setting on-field lows during Bielema’s first season. In addition, there was a program-record, nine-game losing streak, the first nine-loss season in school history, and the first winless conference record since the 1942 team went 0-6 in the Southwest Conference.
It left Bielema “numb” and “frustrated.” But, as the offseason begins, his first year on the job didn’t change his outlook that the goal can be accomplished.
“There’s one game this year that I felt we were manhandled in a way that it’s going to take a while to get the type of personnel to match up one-on-one there for four quarters,” Bielema said, likely referring to the 52-0 loss at Alabama. “But other than that, I’m really excited to have my guys for another six, nine months of development to go into a season again and see where we’re at. … I know where our kids can go.”
Player development will be critical in making it happen. Upgrades are needed at several positions, but there was noticeable promise at a few spots with young players like tight end Hunter Henry, running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, defensive tackle Darius Philon, receiver Keon Hatcher, linebacker Brooks Ellis, and offensive linemen Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland.
The returning group sounded motivated to make sure there isn’t a repeat in 2014.
“This is definitely pretty tough,” Henry said after the loss at LSU. “But we’re just going to carry it through the off-season and remember this when we’re working and try to make a turnaround next year.”
Those players will need much more help competing in an unforgiving SEC West, which has four teams ranked in the top 25 of the Bowl Championship Series standings and six bowl-eligible teams. Bielema said for all the promise the 2013 signing class has shown, the 2014 group “has to be even better. … If you don’t take a step forward every year, you’re making a step backward.”
It won’t help in 2014, but Arkansas believes it secured an important verbal commitment earlier this week from one of the top defensive players in the 2015 recruiting class, Danish defensive end Hjalte Froholdt.
“The main thing that I’m looking for is guys that fit into our profile academically, athletically and socially. But I want guys that like football,” Bielema said. “The guys that are engaged. They get pissed. They get happy. They’re frustrated, they’re mad and then they’re going to go out there and do something about it. I want guys that aren’t robots, aren’t zombies. I want guys that engage in winning.”
It’s no secret about the deficiencies on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, the Razorbacks are optimistic they’ve found their middle linebacker to build around in Ellis, who made 24 tackles in three starts. But the overall play of the unit remained one of the team’s biggest weaknesses and linebacker is an emphasis in recruiting. The same can be said for a secondary that had trouble covering receivers and made costly mistakes throughout the season.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said before the LSU loss. “You can see it on game day. I think there’s been a lot of improvement, especially in the last couple of weeks. We’ve cut down on the amount of points that we’re giving up. We’re being more competitive. … But we’ve got a long way to go.”
On offense, Arkansas’ passing has to improve by leaps and bounds. Brandon Allen ends the year with a season’s worth of experience, but Bielema hinted after the LSU game that Allen would face competition for the job in 2014. Arkansas has some potential weapons to build around, too, with Henry and Hatcher, but the big-play ability of the group must continue to grow.
“They’ve gotten better every week,” Bielema said of the offense. “I thought the running game was there. I thought the blocking has gotten better every week. We’ve got those young kids inside. It’s going to be a tremendous loss to lose David Hurd and Travis Swanson. But I think a year of development — we’ve got a number of guys in our program and then recruiting-wise — that’ll help us get to where we need to be.”
If nothing else, the 2013 SEC Championship Game has provided some concrete proof that a turnaround can be accomplished in one season.
Auburn, after all, was 0-8 in 2012 before rebounding to reel off a 7-1 conference season in Gus Malzahn’s first year. Missouri experienced similar struggles, going 2-6 during its first SEC season, but also recorded a 7-1 season under Gary Pinkel.
“We all understand,” Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman said last week. “This ain’t our first shot at it. So we’ve gone through some things. I wish we hadn’t, but I’ve been through this before. When we were at North Carolina, we won four games our first year there and went to four bowls in a row. At Oklahoma, we lost and two years later they win a national championship. Been through it before.”
So has Bielema, who endured some lean years as an assistant at Iowa before the program rebounded. Bielema believes he has a much better feel for the Razorbacks and what it will take to produce a winning program after his first full year.
He admitted it’s something he didn’t have to figure out when he replaced Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin in 2006. Bielema already had been with the Badgers as an assistant for two seasons and understood the ins and outs of the program.
“I saw all the land mines,” Bielema said of that experience compared to Arkansas. “Not just within our team, not just within our roster, but in the things that you’ve got to do on a daily basis. So that’s dramatically different.”
But Bielema — who has never lacked confidence — said he’s certain the Razorbacks set the foundation for success despite the 3-9 record.
He has history on his side. Several former Arkansas coaches, including Frank Broyles, Bobby Petrino, and Bowden Wyatt, endured losing seasons in their first year with the program. But only one Arkansas coach — F.C. Longman, the program’s final faculty member to serve as a volunteer coach — suffered back-to-back losing seasons to start his career (1906 and 1907).
Bielema doesn’t believe he’ll join Longman after Arkansas closed its first year under his guidance with a confidence-building performance at LSU.
“There were enough positives that I’d be very, very shocked if the story of the 2014 season isn’t anything but a positive,” Bielema said after the game.