One of the more intriguing matchups on the college football bowl undercard is the December 29 game between Arkansas and Texas (9 PM ET, ESPN). It should be fun because it’s the renewal of a once-great rivalry in the old Southwest Conference—the Razorbacks and Longhorns played an epic game in 1969 that settled a national championship. And it will also be revealing, as we continue to see whether second-year head coach Bret Bielama can make Arkansas football a serious player in the SEC West.
It’s a subject that has particular interest for me, as a fan of the Wisconsin Badgers, whom Bielama took to three straight Rose Bowls before departing for Arkansas. Most people here in the Badger State wish the worst on Bielama. For some reason, I don’t share the sentiments. It’s not that I think Bielama is the greatest guy going—he often comes off like a smarmy know-it-all—but I wouldn’t mind seeing him succeed. And if nothing else, I’m interested in seeing whether he can pull it off in college football’s toughest neighborhood.
You could see Arkansas making progress early in this season, as they lost close games to Texas A&M, Alabama and Mississippi State. They won a non-conference game against Northern Illinois 52-14. That’s not a measurement of a team’s ability to play in the SEC West but the way the Razorbacks just physically manhandled the Huskies showed how far they had come along. Keep in mind that in 2012, the last year prior to Bielama, Arkansas has lost at home to UL-Lafayette, another good team from a midmajor conference.
Bielama’s calling card, first at Wisconsin and now again at Arkansas, has been the running game. The Hogs rank 28th in the nation in rush yardage and have managed a couple SEC wins, over LSU and Ole Miss, in spite of a non-existent passing attack. What’s more noteworthy though, is that when Arkansas wins, it’s less about running the ball and more about defense.
The most obvious sign of that is on the scoreboard, with the shutout wins over LSU and Ole Miss. But even a closer look at each game shows how defense is carrying the day for Bielama’s team. They held LSU to 36 yards rushing and Ole Miss to 63. The prerequisite to winning in the SEC is playing defense, and Arkansas’ underrated ability here—they rank 15th in the country in points allowed—speaks well to their ability to compete.
Where I’d have concerns is Bielama’s recruiting. His class ranked 10th in the SEC in 2013, the class he would have had to put together on the fly after taking the job. That could be excused, but the following class ranked 11th, and based on early commits, this next year’s class is also 10th. There’s no getting around the fact that Arkansas is going to have to find a way to win with considerably less talent than their conference rivals.
Arkansas fans can take heart in this—Bielama always did a good job with talent development in Wisconsin and I see no reason to think that won’t continue. I’d have every confidence that he can coach up the Razorbacks to consistent 8-4 seasons and maybe 9-3. In the SEC West, that will snag you a spot in a major bowl game one of these years.
What Bielama has always been done in by though, is the fact his game management skills are a train wreck. There’s a ceiling any program he coaches is going to hit. I’d caution Arkansas fans to be prepared for a big game with Alabama when Bielama comes in as a seven-point underdog, works up a good game plan and only trails 17-13 in the fourth quarter. Then watch the last drive stall because the clock runs out due to Bielama burning up a couple timeouts in the third quarter when he didn’t like the formation on 1st-and-10 from his own 35.
But that’s still a couple years off. Right now, the good side of Bret Bielama is still on display for Arkansas football fans. He’s got an improving team and if they can beat Texas—another team that’s playing some good defense—it will validate the late-season surge that took place in Little Rock.
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