Bret Bielema’s 2017 has not proceeded as planned. Arkansas looked like it had the schedule to break through the eight-win barrier this season. The team, alas, does not appear to be up to it.
The Razorbacks are 2-3 overall, 0-3 vs. FBS teams with losses to TCU, Texas A&M and South Carolina. The last of the three, a must-win road game in Columbia, was by 26 points. That game was must-win because Arkansas has Alabama (away) and Auburn the next two weeks. Probable losses there drop the Razorbacks to 2-5. They would still have road trips to LSU and Ole Miss left on the schedule, as well as games against Mississippi State and Missouri.
This season is only the latest Arkansas setback. Bielema’s entire tenure has not gone as planned. He left Wisconsin fresh off 40 wins over the previous four seasons and three straight Rose Bowl appearances. In year five, his Arkansas teams are a combined 22-29 vs. FBS and 10-24 against the SEC.
Bielema’s straight win-loss record undersells things a bit. He produced top 15 SRS teams in 2014 and 2015. But those teams did not have the records of Top 15 teams. The rest of the SEC West peaked at the same time.
SRS: Simple Rating System; a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average.
The 2014 team that went 7-6 faced eight teams that were ranked Top 20 at the time during the regular season. Bielema’s Razorbacks blanked ranked LSU and Ole Miss teams at home. Arkansas also had one-score losses to Alabama and then No. 1 Mississippi State. They finished 12th nationally in SRS and seventh in the SEC West.
Bielema’s 2015 team went 5-3 in conference, with the two non-Bama losses by one point combined in regulation. However, that team coughed away a chance at a 10-win season early, losing to Toledo at home and Texas Tech by double digits.
It’s unlikely Bret Bielema gets fired this season. Arkansas AD Jeff Long is entrenched. Bielema was his hire. And Long has had a lot of patience. Moreover, Bielema’s contract extension in 2015 contains a ludicrous $15.4 million buyout if he’s fired before 2018. That drops to $11.7 million after next season.
However, it’s worth placing Bielema into context with other troubled coaches in the conference. Here are his five seasons in SRS (2017 still in progress) along with the progressions over the same years for Kevin Sumlin, Butch Jones and Gus Malzahn, who have had seats with substantial levels of heat.
Malzahn had a similar drop to Bielema, though he fell from a higher high to a higher low. His stretch of 10 losses in 12 SEC games extended over two seasons. Jones took a bit longer to get Tennessee going, but he looks to be on a similar downward course. Sumlin has not so much dropped as meandered down a shallow incline and had a substantially better start than Bielema. You would have to put Bielema as the worst of those four.
We can also compare Bielema to recent SEC coaches who were fired or moved by their failings to quit. For coaches who lasted more than five seasons, I listed the last five.
Chizik: 10.26 ¦ 20.66 ¦ 3.80 ¦ -0.92
Dooley: 1.78 ¦ 4.26 ¦ 4.07
Muschamp: 6.00 ¦ 17.35 ¦ 4.67 ¦ 8.12
Spurrier: 13.56 ¦ 15.97 ¦ 16.06 ¦ 6.70 ¦ -2.18*
Richt: 10.67 ¦ 17.93 ¦ 12.82 ¦ 18.84 ¦ 8.98
Miles: 14.76 ¦ 14.59 ¦ 10.75 ¦ 15.04 ¦ 15.93*
* Partial season
Richt and Miles were the own unique cases. If you’re at Georgia and LSU, you’re expected to compete for an SEC title each season. Those two, despite their robust SRS numbers, were underperforming.
Spurrier reeled off three 11-win seasons. Then the team went into a sharp decline resulting in him leaving. Bielema didn’t have the success before what appears to be a similar trajectory.
Chizik kept what he inherited working and caught lightning with Cam Newton and won a national title. Muschamp produced one Top 10 11-2 Florida team. One would have to put both ahead of Bielema, despite the precipitous falls afterward. Derek Dooley never got Tennessee anywhere close to what Bielema has done at Arkansas. But “better than Derek Dooley” says little.
One can respect Bielema for taking the uphill challenge in the SEC at Arkansas, even if staying at Wisconsin (until perhaps a better job came up) would have been the wisest course. His Razorbacks haven’t made much progress up the hill (and less progress than his predecessors made).
If Arkansas continues its trajectory this season, it’s going to be hard to make the case, beyond the buyout, for keeping him around.