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Is Saturday's Game at South Carolina a Must-Win for Arkansas and Bret Bielema?

Bret Bielema

Bret Bielema

The patience among college football fans to wait for a winning program to be built is getting thinner and thinner, especially in the SEC. Since national championship-winning head coach Phillip Fulmer was ousted at Tennessee in 2008, fans have shown they are no longer happy with just a winning season. They want titles and championships now.

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This insatiable appetite for titles also contributed to the departures of Mark Richt (2015) and Les Miles (2016), from Georgia and LSU respectively. This season has already seen plenty of talk about the job security of Tennessee’s Butch Jones, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Missouri’s Barry Odom. Another one from this fraternity feeling the pressure expressed by a growing disgruntled fan base is ArkansasBret Bielema.

Bielema is in his fifth season as the head coach of the Razorbacks after going 68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006-12, a tenure that ended with three straight Big Ten titles (2010-12). Success has been a little harder to come by at Arkansas, as he’s a game below .500 overall (27-28) and just 10-23 in SEC games. His best season thus far is an 8-5 showing in 2015 that resulted in a third-place tie in the SEC West.

Winning at Arkansas during the Nick Saban era at Alabama can be done. Bielema’s predecessor, Bobby Petrino led the Razorbacks to a 21-5 record from 2010-11, including a spot in the Sugar Bowl in ’10 during the BCS era. This fact is not lost on the fan base, which is why the 2017 season is a crucial one for Bielema.

Unfortunately, just one month into the season and Bielema is already facing an uphill battle. Overall the Razorbacks are 2-2 and 0-1 in the SEC after losing 50-43 in overtime to Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, back on Sept. 23. In fact, Arkansas’ two victories so far are against FCS opponent Florida A&M and New Mexico State (2-3) from the Sun Belt.

Given how dominant Alabama has looked early on, as well as the fact that Auburn and Texas A&M are both 2-0 in conference play, it could be said the Razorbacks have already been eliminated from SEC West title contention. However, there are still eight games left in the regular season, all but one of them being in conference, which is why Saturday’s road game against South Carolina might be the tipping point for Razorback Nation.

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A win against the Gamecocks would put the Hogs at 3-2 before tough back-to-back games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 13 Auburn. After that the schedule opens up somewhat with a road game against beleaguered Ole Miss and a home date with Coastal Carolina, a program that is making the transition to the FBS ranks, to wrap up October.

November has Arkansas going to Baton Rouge to face an LSU team that also is dealing with an impatient fan base after Saturday’s stunning home loss to Troy. The Razorbacks close out their regular season at home with games against Mississippi State and Missouri. Even with the assumption that an upset of either Alabama or Auburn is too tough of a task, it’s possible that Arkansas could finish with a five-game winning streak, which would mean an 8-4 record.

That would represent Bielema’s high-water mark in the regular season during his tenure at Arkansas. He won eight games in 2015 but needed a Liberty Bowl victory over Kansas State to get there. An 8-4 finish also could find the Razorbacks in the polls and should help them as it relates to the bowl pecking order. Instead of the Texas, Liberty or Belk Bowl, Arkansas could be a candidate for the TaxSlayer, Orange or (in the best-case scenario) Outback Bowl. Finishing the season on a strong note also gives the coaching staff more credibility on the recruiting trail.

Getting back to the business at hand, South Carolina is a scrappy team that has taken on the mentality of head coach Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks are 3-2 on the season, including an opening win against NC State, who just beat Florida State on Saturday. The two losses have been to Kentucky and Texas A&M, the latter of which came this weekend. For historical purposes, the Razorbacks are 13-9 against South Carolina but have lost the two most recent matchups (2012-13).

Even if the Hogs lose on the road to the Gamecocks, a five-game winning streak is still possible and would place more emphasis on their bowl destination (and outcome). But will a 7-5 showing sit well with Razorback Nation? It probably depends somewhat on which teams Arkansas beats. For example, this appears to be the year that LSU is vulnerable, even at home.

There are also the financial ramifications to consider, namely Bielema’s $15.4 million buyout. So barring a complete collapse over these last eight games, Bielema’s job appears relatively safe this season. However, the buyout number drops to $11.7 million in 2018 and if there’s any conference where money is not an issue when it comes to coaching decisions, it’s the SEC.

The easiest way for Bielema to put all of this hot seat talk to bed is to win. While the old saying “winning cures everything” may not be exactly true in the meat-grinder that is the SEC, it’s at least a good place to start.

— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.