The Arkansas Razorbacks were two halves of winning football away from being a nine-win team last season.
Had the Razorbacks been able to hold on to a 24-7 halftime lead in their regular season-finale at Missouri and had then been able to maintain a 24-0 halftime lead in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech, Bret Bielema and his Razorbacks would have had a much different experience Monday when they faced the throng of print, broadcast, and radio reporters and analysts at Hoover, Ala., to kick off SEC Football Media Days.
If the Razorbacks had the wherewithal to close the deals against Missouri and Virginia Tech, there would have been more juice around their program and a greater expectation for the Razorbacks’ appearance.
Make no mistake, there was buzz for Bielema at the event, but that was more about his personality and quick and clever off-the-cuff remarks than actual excitement about the potential for the Razorbacks in 2017.
During his previous four trips to SEC Media Days, Bielema earned a reputation for being quotable, and more than anything else reporters salivate for material that’s a cut above the meat and potatoes dished out by most of the SEC coaches during their time on the podium.
Bielema delivered, too, by humorously answering questions about the recent birth of his first child, Briella Nichole, as well as the trials, travails, and overriding joy of becoming a daddy for the first time.
Bielema also related his end of the story that SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey used to introduce him which will forever more be known as the infamous Chipolte Butt-dialing Incident. The short telling of the story is that Bielema inadvertently placed a Facetime call to Sankey while picking up Chipolte takeout last Saturday for him and his wife.
All of that made for good fun and good copy, but as Bielema has noted before, he’d rather be one of the bell cows at SEC Media Days for the play of his football team than to be the belle of the ball for snappy quips and banter.
If they Hogs had won nine games last year, the Razorbacks might have gotten some notice as a dark horse contender in the West behind Auburn and LSU in the division’s chase to catch Alabama.
The narrative that will come out of Hoover about the Hogs, however, will be much different. There will be no real consideration about the Razorbacks contending this year from the media.
The media’s only thought about the Hogs is whether to place them as fifth, sixth or seventh on their ballots for the SEC West’s predicted finish.
Don’t be surprised if the Razorbacks are picked to finish last in the SEC West. Probably Arkansas’ greatest insurance from that indignity is the uncertainty revolving around Ole Miss’ program with NCAA sanctions hanging like a guillotine blade over the Rebels’ future.
The Razorbacks’ reputation going into this season is that they are more of an irritant than a truly worthy SEC opponent. Now, any team in the SEC can win on any Saturday if it is overlooked, but the Razorbacks aren’t really perceived as a threat in 2017, not after last season.
The meltdowns against Texas A&M, Missouri, and Virginia Tech coupled with the beatdowns against Alabama, Auburn, LSU last season make it hard for the media and possibly opponents to truly respect the Hogs.
You might think I’m laying it on thick, but that’s the SEC’s perspective of the Razorbacks going into the season whether I like writing or you like reading it or not.
Arkansas was bad along both lines of scrimmage last season. Teams ran at will on the Razorbacks, and the Hogs were unable to run the football effectively against SEC-caliber opponents.
That’s not news to Bielema. He said it himself on the podium, and added that there was an emphasis on stopping the run and running the football in spring practice. No doubt that will continue when preseason practices commence in next month.
“Two things that Coach [Hayden] Fry [Bielema’s head coach as a player at Iowa] taught me a long time ago is if you want to win games, you got to run the football and stop the run,” Bielema said. “And last year offensively at times, we weren’t able to run the football effectively because of good defenses, and on defense there were times where the game got away from us and stopping the run. So there’s two huge points of emphasis. They kind of fed off one another, so in the spring I could really emphasize on that and work off it.”
Bielema said the switch to a 3-4 defense better suits the type of athletes Arkansas is able to recruit. There are only so many big, fast athletic players capable of playing up to SEC standards. By switching schemes, Arkansas’ needs fewer great linemen to create a two-deep rotation. It also puts more speed on the field.
“Just by pure math,” Bielema said. “You got 11 guys on the field. Eight guys now will be on their two feet. You got eight guys on two feet being able to change and run. You naturally become more athletic with the 3-4 scheme with the athletes on the field.”
As for the offensive line, Bielema admitted that the Razorbacks did not have enough experience last season to be competitive in the SEC. His assistant offensive line coach Kurt Anderson was unable to establish a consistent starting five until late in the season. While that stifled the Hogs’ efforts a year ago, the result is that a lot of lineman gained valuable SEC experience. Bielema that hopes will pay off with a stronger rushing game this season.
“We have six guys that started SEC football games for us now on the offensive line,” Bielema said. “That’s so much of an improvement from a year ago. Coach Anderson had another year with this group.
“One of the major issues with us last year in protection and taking care of our quarterback and being able to run the football was we did not have enough of SEC quality offensive linemen in our program. I myself had not done what I needed to do to give us the numbers early on in those classes to get us there. Or some guys left a little early because they played well. I feel really, really good about where that group is. I like the fact that they’ve taken some shots, and they’ve survived, and I really think they’re in a mode to really prove some things this fall.”
While the Razorbacks did get manhandled on both sides of the line of scrimmage in SEC play last year, the upside is that the Hogs did have the opportunity to win nine games last season.
If the Razorbacks can be stronger up front in the running game, they will see less pressure from opponents, and their issues with protecting quarterback Austin Allen will automatically improve.
If the Hogs can be successful running in short-yardage situations, they will be able to move the chains, burn the clock, and score more points. All of that will help protect the defense by keeping them off the field and giving them more of a point cushion to depend upon.
From there, whatever defensive improvement can be made with new coordinator Paul Rhodes and the new scheme will only make Arkansas that much better.
Not much is expected from Bielema’s humble Hogs this season. I’ll have to witness improvement before I will believe it, but throughout Arkansas’ history, some very solid Razorback football teams reared their heads and bared their tusks when the media least expected it.
Maybe that will be the case in 2017.