Bret Bielema couldn't have asked for a better year to prove himself
For the first time as a head coach, Bret Bielema has some pressure on him to win now.
It’s a relatively new feeling for the Arkansas coach. Maybe there were a few Wisconsin fans who were concerned that Bielema plateaued in 2008 when the Badgers went just 7-6 in his third season. He then, of course, ripped off double-digit wins in three of his next four seasons, led Wisconsin to three Rose Bowls and promptly left for Fayetteville.
Entering his fifth season, the fun-loving Arkansas coach has people questioning if he’s fighting for his job in 2017. After all, no SEC West team has been worse in conference play than Arkansas since Bielema arrived in 2013.
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say Bielema is coaching to secure some long-term security. Let’s say that contrary to the vote of confidence athletic director Jeff Long gave him this summer, the Hogs would be willing to fire Bielema with three years left on his deal if they were to stumble in 2017.
But if Bielema does have to hit a certain win total this year, he’s got a whole lotta things working in his favor.
Bielema’s squad has three elements that West teams seem to rarely have. One is a proven returning quarterback.
If there’s a conversation about optimism for the Hogs, Austin Allen is obviously at the center of it. Having a senior, gunslinging signal-caller with skills and experience gives Arkansas something that nobody else in the West has.
Sure, Allen threw 15 interceptions and was sacked 34 times last year. He acknowledged that both totals were too high, especially down the stretch. He learned that he can’t always make the home-run play.
The game should slow down for Allen in his second year as a starter. All reports say that he’s different this year and much more comfortable.
“For me, I just have to take what they give me,” Allen told reporters at Media Days. “A few times last year, I felt like I had to make a play to get us back on track. I thought I had to get out of my comfort zone, and it didn’t always work out. Punting isn’t always the worst thing.
“This year, if I get 4 yards on a 3rd-and-6, I know that it is playing field position and flipping the field. Knowing the scenario of the game and the down and distance will really help me out by playing smarter and staying in the flow of the game better.”
It’s not crazy to suggest that the Hogs’ success in 2016 was largely dependent on Allen’s performance. In their victories, Allen completed 66 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions. In the losses, Allen still completed 57 percent of his passes, but he threw for nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The upside is there. Keep in mind that when Allen was on his game last year, he led Arkansas to victories against three teams ranked in the top 15. Nobody in the SEC threw for more yards and only Joshua Dobbs threw for more touchdowns.
That was despite the fact that at certain points last year, Allen took punishment like this:
Never question the toughness of Arkansas QB Austin Allen pic.twitter.com/eTTKtOvekQ
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) July 27, 2017
Yes, some of that was on him. Some of that was also on an inexperienced offensive line.
Arkansas’ struggles up front last year were well-documented. It’s not often you see a Bielema-coached team consistently lose the battle in the trenches.
We already examined why the loss of first-team All-SEC tackle Dan Skipper might not have been as critical as some thought. Even though they lost experience with Skipper, there’s reason to believe the 2017 Arkansas line will look more like a unit we’re accustomed to seeing from Bielema.
All of Arkansas’ projected offensive line starters have at least two years in the system. And from the sound of reports out of camp, it shows. Colton Jackson has been turning heads at right tackle, as has improved pass protector Hjalte Froholdt, who had to learn how to not lean forward at left guard.
Preseason first-team All-SEC center Frank Ragnow is the leader of a group that had “spotless” pass protection in the second week of camp. He said the calls are simpler now because guys are more experienced.
They’ve seen the tape. They’re well aware of how ugly it got for Allen at times. That’s been the driving force behind a unit that sounds as motivated as ever to turn around the narrative.
As for the other narrative, well, it seems like Bielema has favorable odds to do that, too.
When Bielema finished 0-8 in conference play in his first season at Arkansas, there were plenty of SEC folks saying “This isn’t the B1G anymore.” While one could argue that Bielema’s Rose Bowl teams at Wisconsin had more talent than the 4-8 squad he inherited at Arkansas, reality set in.
No division in all of college football has been tougher than the SEC West in the past five years. Bielema’s 10-22 mark in SEC play reflects that. It’s not uncommon for Arkansas to have six of its conference matchups against top-25 teams.
But 2017 could be a different story.
Arkansas’ schedule, at least looking at it in August, appears to be somewhat favorable. Consider this: The toughest non-conference matchup is a home tilt against a TCU squad that Arkansas beat in Fort Worth last year. The crossover matchups are at South Carolina and vs. Missouri, which means Arkansas avoids East contenders Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
On top of that, the rest of the SEC slate isn’t too brutal. Road matchups at Alabama and LSU obviously won’t be a picnic, but Arkansas gets Auburn home after playing Texas A&M in Arlington, and the schedule finishes with home games against Mississippi State and Mizzou. It sets up well for Arkansas to win four of its final five games heading into a bowl.
Much of the offseason talk about Bielema stemmed from how the Hogs finished 2016. Losing by 53 points to Auburn, 28 to LSU and blowing a 24-0 halftime lead against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl was obviously not a good look.
If Arkansas collapses down the stretch with this year’s schedule, the Bielema doubters will multiply. He knows that. Long knows that, too.
They also know that there are other areas besides Allen’s decision-making and improved offensive line play that need improvement for that favorable schedule to even matter. An inexperienced group of receivers needs to develop. The transition to the 3-4 has to be seamless for a unit that allowed the program’s most points since 2008.
But Bielema can sleep easier knowing that the foundation is there. The pieces are in place for him to show that he hasn’t plateaued as some believe.
Hot seat or not, don’t be surprised if Bielema is sitting on a cool throne at this time next year.