Final SEC Rankings: Which direction is the Arkansas program heading?

NCAA Football: Auburn at Arkansas

Final SEC Rankings of 2013:

14. Arkansas
13. Kentucky
12. Florida 
11. Tennessee
10. Ole Miss
9. Mississippi State
8. Georgia
7. Vanderbilt
6. Texas A&M
5. LSU
4. Alabama
3. South Carolina
2. Missouri
1. Auburn

Enjoy the debate.

14. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8) 

The grass isn’t greener, yet, for Bret Bielema, Arkansas’ first-year coach who departed Wisconsin after a Rose Bowl appearance in his seventh season for a job in the SEC. His inaugural campaign was stinky, crippled by the scraps left by John L. Smith and marked by a disappointing nine-game losing skid to end the season after the Razorbacks had opened with three consecutive wins.

On-field performance: D; Lack of consistency leads to losses

Despite a 1,026-yard freshman season from heralded tailback Alex Collins, Arkansas never found consistency on offense and finished last in the league in turnover margin. Three-and-outs were prevalent and the lack of big plays in the passing game from Brandon Allen gave defenses an opportunity to key on the Razorbacks’ two-headed ground game after a 3-0 start.

Lack of continuity on offense trickled to the other side of the football as well on a unit that gave up just under 31 points per game. Considering how long former coordinator Chris Ash’s unit was on the field, it wasn’t a total disaster. Texas A&M and Kentucky ranked lower in several categories, but 25 touchdowns allowed through the air was alarming. The secondary simply didn’t make enough plays and was burned often on the edge. This is one area Arkansas must get better immediately.

Lack of discipline kept drives alive, deflating a strong front seven that finished third in the SEC with 28 total sacks. Arkansas was whistled for 49 penalties in 12 games — second only to Tennessee (55).

Expectations: C; Hogs fall short

Following the dismissal of its second coach in as many years at the end of last season and the loss of all-league caliber signal caller Tyler Wilson, expectations weren’t high coming into 2013 but the Razorbacks never envisioned a rocky, winless SEC slate. A 45-point homecoming loss to South Carolina was the low point as Arkansas’ record dipped below .500 and thus began to spiral.

RELATED: Arkansas regular season recap

To the Razorbacks’ credit, complete disaster was nearly averted in the season finale against LSU with a valiant effort on the road. Anthony Jennings’ 49-yard heave to Travin Dural with a minute left however staved off the upset and sent the Razorbacks to a dreadful 0-8.

During that tumultuous stretch to end the season, six of nine losses were to ranked teams — all in the top 18. If there’s a silver lining it’s that Arkansas rebounded from a 35-17 loss to West champ Auburn on Nov. 2 to play three straight tight games to finish the schedule. Bielema’s team didn’t give up and that’s commendable.

Coaching: C-; Decline ensued after tweet

By his own admission, it’s difficult for Bielema and his staff to pinpoint the reasons behind Arkansas’ downward spiral that ensued after the Hogs squandered a 17-point lead in the third quarter at Rutgers in September. During a recent Q&A session with the Associated Press, Bielema attributed the collapse to divine intervention and said “the good Lord decided us to be that way.”

Bielema’s wife, Jen, didn’t help matters early when she tweeted ‘#karma’ after Wisconsin’s loss to Arizona State on Sept. 14. Death threats followed and those may have taken a personal toll on the Razorbacks coach. Arkansas lost every game the rest of the way following Jen’s social media mistake.

Teachable moments are like gold coins to coaches but most would like to fill their pockets after wins. The good news for Bielema is there’s plenty of time to steer the ship in the right direction. The Razorback brass has been understanding and knew it would possibly get worse before it got better when he was hired last year. Rewarding Bielema with a deal that stretched to 2018 at $2.9 million a year proved a point with job security.

Recruiting: C; Could be better

Nine-loss seasons often negatively impact public perception of a football program, but the Razorbacks feel comfortable this year’s incoming class wasn’t strong affected by on-field performance. It doesn’t appear Arkansas will have any instant playmakers however, a three-star heavy group ranked just outside of the Top 25 by 247Sports. Stockpiling for the future is key, but it’s not going to help the Razorbacks this fall when other up-and-comers in the West are signing first-year players who will be in the mix for playing time at various skill positions.

RELATED: Arkansas’ National Signing Day recap

Offensive line was an area of interest for this class and Arkansas will get immediate help with tackles Brian Wallace (6-6, 305; St. Louis, Mo.) and Jovan Pruitt (6-6, 290; Dallas, Tx.). Wallace was an Army All-American Bowl invite along with incoming defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson (6-2, 335; El Dorado, Ar.).

Jackson’s the top-rated player in Arkansas and has been a starter at the 6A level since the 10th grade.

Program momentum: D+; Treading water

It’s hard to imagine this program is two years removed from an 11-2 season, just three from a BCS at-large berth. Steady quarterback play and a relentless ground game was indicative of Bobby Petrino’s success in Fayetteville and at some point, Arkansas will need to get back to that interesting mix on offense to find wins.

The return of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams in the backfield provides the Razorbacks with dynamic rushing attack that’s needed in a league that remains dominated by the elites in the trenches despite the recent obsession with the spread.

With Ole Miss on the upswing, Texas A&M staking its claim near the top and Auburn’s rise under Gus Malzahn, the West window’s closing on the Razorbacks despite Bielema’s regime still being in its infancy. The jury’s still out on whether or not Arkansas made the right move last offseason.

Photo Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

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