With Arkansas’ four losses this season coming to four SEC West opponents, a lot of the fans are asking why.
Some don’t want to hear the answer. Those are the ones that want the media to provide affirmation, not information.
The honest truth is Bret Bielema either has to figure out how to get more players that are better or change his system to match the type players he can get.
Not to knock Bielema, but it’s going to be easier to do the latter than the former.
In today’s college football world it doesn’t take five years to rebuild a program. By year four — at the latest — you have a pretty good idea of what you’ve got with a coach and his program.
Right now, Arkansas has a program that is mired in the lower half of the SEC West. It’s pretty much where the Razorbacks have been for most of the last decade.
When Bobby Petrino took over from Houston Nutt, the excuse from fans was he inherited a mess. Two years later, they were battling for BCS bowl bids, getting to the Sugar Bowl in 2010.
Petrino’s record over his first two years was 13-12 while Bielema was 10-15. Okay, close enough to not cause panic. After the third year, Petrino was 23-15 while Bielema comes in at 18-20.
Now we’re in Bielema’s fourth year and he sits at 6-4 with a 24-24 overall record. Petrino, with two games left in his four season was 32-16.
Some will say the mess Bielema inherited was worse than Petrino. You can argue that one until the cows come home. The same things were said when Petrino came in after Nutt.
Bielema rode into town after guiding Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowl bids. When you really look at it, that’s not quite what it seems, although the Badgers did get there.
In the last season, Wisconsin was third in their division with a .500 record. The year before was their best year, getting to Pasadena after tying Penn State in their division before falling to Oregon in a 45-38 track meet. It was his best team.
The year before, the Badgers beat Ohio State, finished in a three-way tie at the top of the Big 10 with the Buckeyes and Michigan State, went to TCU and lost to the Horned Frogs.
What does that mean? Well, Bielema’s system was slowing down before he left the Big 10, which is not the SEC. His best team at Wisconsin would have been no better than 9-3 in the SEC West and that would require some fortunate bounces.
At Wisconsin, Bielema was able to recruit the type players that fit his system. Big, burly, strong linemen and good running backs are more plentiful in that area of the country. He did get some good players out of Florida that fit his system.
Now his recruiting has been better than Petrino, but the results not as good.
Which means the system isn’t as effective.
Petrino had an offense that almost blew up scoreboards. He recruited receivers and skill position players, then put them into a system where they could be successful. In Arkansas and Texas, the overwhelming majority of high schools run some version of the Spread offense.
Not many run a ground-and-pound pro-style attack. Even pro-style offenses are going more to a spread look with a mobile quarterback. Look at Petrino’s current Louisville team or, closer to home, what Nick Saban has done at Alabama with a freshman quarterback.
In a conversation two weeks ago after his radio show in Tuscaloosa, Saban said he looked at what offenses gave his defense the most trouble, then, well, adapted his style to match what works.
As a result, he was able to sign Jalen Hurts, who has started all but the season opener for the Crimson Tide and they are rolling along offensively with a look unlike anything Saban has ever had. They even have some tempo and RPO (run-pass option) discussed at his press conferences.
No one would have dreamed it possible a couple of years ago.
Even Petrino, who never had a mobile quarterback, adapted his high-flying offense to what Lamar Jackson could do best. All that’s done is vault the Cardinals into the College Football Playoff discussion.
Bielema and the Hogs should win their last two games against Mississippi State and Missouri. That will put Bielema at 26-24 with a bowl game left.
More importantly, winning these last two will give Bielema an 11-21 mark in SEC games. After year four, Petrino was 17-15 and, in case you happened to be wondering, Houston Nutt was also 17-15 after year four.
That IS some cause for concern.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, Bielema is at a crossroads with a couple of clear choices:
• Get better players for his system. Exactly how is not really clear. What he’s been doing isn’t working, though.
• Get a system for the players he can get. His overall recruiting is rated higher than what Petrino or Nutt did.
Neither option is pleasant for Bielema. He’s repeatedly said he believes in his system, which worked before.
Maybe he’s realized that the SEC West is not the Big 10. You can’t get a bunch of 3-star players and coach enough of them up to win in the world Bielema is now in.
Of course that’s assuming that competing for championships is the no-excuses expectation.
Which SHOULD be the expectation.
Again, with no excuses.