Arkansas has experienced its share of highs and lows since joining the SEC in 1992. The Razorbacks have won at least 10 games three times since 2006 but also bottomed out with an 0-8 record in conference play in 2013.
Finishing 0-8 in SEC play in 2013 was the result of several factors, but the winless season is largely attributed to the coaching carousel that transpired in Fayetteville.
Bobby Petrino’s four-year stint in Fayetteville was successful, which included 21 wins from 2010-11 and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl after the 2010 season. But Petrino’s tenure ended on a motorcycle ride in the spring of 2012, forcing the Razorbacks into uncertainty after the best two-year stint since Arkansas joined the SEC.
Athletic director Jeff Long’s options were limited in replacing Petrino and he chose familiarity by selecting former assistant John L. Smith to serve as a one-year option.
But that one year was surrounded in uncertainty in numerous ways, and the Razorbacks slipped to 4-8 overall and just 2-6 in SEC play.
Long’s hire of Bret Bielema from Wisconsin was a surprise, and Bielema endured a rough debut in 2013. Arkansas finished 3-9 overall and recorded its first winless season in conference play since joining the SEC.
While Bielema shouldered much of the criticism from the 2013 campaign, the Razorbacks’ problems were bigger than a coach.
Three coaches in three years, changes in scheme, personnel departures – including quarterback Tyler Wilson – and uncertainty in recruiting all compounded Arkansas’ issues.
Switching from Petrino’s high-powered offense to Bielema’s ground-and-pound attack required time and adjustments, but the Razorbacks started to show signs of life late in the 2013 season.
After being outscored by 139-24 against South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn, Arkansas lost by 10 to Ole Miss, lost by seven in overtime to Mississippi State and nearly upset LSU in Baton Rouge to close out 2013.
Those signs of life late in the season have carried over into 2014. Arkansas battled defending SEC champion Auburn for a half, losing 45-21 after the Tigers scored 24 unanswered points over the final two quarters.
The Razorbacks thoroughly dominated FCS opponent Nicholls State in Week 2 and gashed Texas Tech’s defense for 438 yards in a huge 49-28 road victory for Arkansas.
The Red Raiders may end 2014 as an overrated team based on the preseason rankings, but the Razorbacks are clearly improving under Bielema.
Why has Arkansas improved? Outside of the rushing attack and dynamic duo of running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, here are three reasons why the Razorbacks are improving in Bielema’s second season:
A healthy Brandon Allen at QB
In his first two starts of 2013, Allen completed 24 of 39 throws for 355 yards and five scores. After a shoulder injury against Southern Miss, Allen wasn’t the same quarterback. He finished 2013 by throwing just nine touchdowns over the final eight games and a lackluster 49.6 completion percentage. Allen is off to a good start once again, completing 28 of 48 passes for 353 yards and six scores. The Razorbacks will always lean on the run, but Allen’s health (and development) should keep opposing defenses honest.
Arkansas will always have trouble attracting five-star talent, but Bielema and his staff inked the No. 23 class in 2013 and the No. 30 haul in '14. And the Razorbacks are targeting another top 20-30 class this year, which is ranked No. 26 by 247Sports. The 2015 class already includes five four-star players. Bielema and his staff have done a good job of quickly developing talent, as eight players from the 2013 class are listed as starters. And nine players from the 2014 class are listed on the depth chart for Week 4, including nose guard Bijhon Jackson, center Frank Ragnow and cornerback Henre’ Toliver.
Reviewing Arkansas' Recruiting Over the Last Five Years
In the Trenches
This is one area Bielema has made an immediate difference. In a short time, Arkansas’ offensive line went from a question mark to a strength. Sophomores Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland headline a unit that bulldozed Texas Tech’s defensive line and leads the way for a rushing attack that ranks No. 2 nationally with an average of 7.9 yards per carry. The future for the offensive line looks bright with freshmen Frank Ragnow and Brian Wallace already appearing on the depth chart. Defensively, Arkansas has six freshmen or sophomores listed up front. It sounds cliché, but winning in the SEC starts in the trenches. The Razorbacks have the makings of a solid offensive and defensive line over the next few seasons.
Obstacles to Overcome
Brutal SEC West
Arkansas 2014 Schedule
Sure, Arkansas – yes it’s a small sample size – looks to be improved in 2014. But realistically, what’s the win total for this team by December? The SEC West is unforgiving, hosting two national title contenders in Alabama and Auburn, teams on the rise in Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, while LSU appears to be on track to quickly reload after a rash of personnel departures. Winning a game against an opponent from the West will be tough, and the Razorbacks play Missouri and Georgia in crossover play with the East. Ouch.
Developing the Passing Attack
A healthy Brandon Allen at quarterback will solve some of the Razorbacks’ passing game, but this offense averaged only 148.5 yards passing per game last year. Through three games, Arkansas is averaging just 141.7 yards per game through the air, but quarterbacks have already tossed six touchdowns after tossing a total of 15 in 12 games in 2013. In addition to Allen, the Razorbacks need more help from the receiving corps. Can Bielema and coordinator Jim Chaney develop a gamebreaker or two here?
Talent at Linebacker/Defensive Back
The Razorbacks will miss defensive end Trey Flowers next year, but the depth chart up front is mostly comprised of sophomores and freshmen. Sophomore Darius Philon is one of the SEC’s rising stars, and sophomore nose guard Taiwan Johnson has 3.5 sacks in 2014. Despite the optimism up front, the back seven is still a work in progress. Arkansas’ linebacking corps and defensive backfield ranked near the bottom of most SEC unit rankings in the preseason. If the Razorbacks are going to take a step forward on defense, secondary and linebacker play has to improve.
Looking Ahead to 2015
Arkansas is slated to lose 19 seniors this offseason. However, just nine are listed as starters on the depth chart.
Next season's schedule also is more favorable, featuring a rebuilding Tennessee team from the East and a home date against Mississippi State.
With most of the core returning, 2015 should be a better gauge of how far the Razorbacks have come in Bielema’s tenure.
Regardless of the final record in 2014, Arkansas is on the right track. The Razorbacks are building a ground-and-pound offense that resembles Bielema’s offenses at Wisconsin, and there’s young talent to build around on defense.
Winning a SEC game with a difficult schedule is going to be a challenge in 2014. However, Bielema and this staff won’t have to have wins to show progress, especially if the Razorbacks are competitive in every conference game.
Patience is required with a coaching change, especially in Fayetteville – in a brutal SEC West – after going through a messy end to Petrino’s tenure and the tumultuous one-year stint under Smith.
Bielema has plenty of work to do and by no means is Arkansas a finished product. But with a talented (and youthful) core in place, combined with the improvement at the end of 2013 and start to '14, the Razorbacks are turning a corner and appear to be deepening what is already college football’s toughest division.