2012 Record: 4-8 (2-6 in SEC)
Head Coach: Bret Bielema (first year at Arkansas, 68-24 at Wisconsin)
Last Bowl Game: 2012 Cotton Bowl: beat Kansas State 29-16
Stadium: Donald W Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, AR (capacity = 76,000)
Home Field Advantage: ranked 35th out of 69 BCS teams
Toughest Home Games: 9/28 vs Texas A&M, 10/12 vs South Carolina
Toughest Road Games: 10/5 at Florida, 10/19 at Alabama, 11/29 at LSU
Stats to Fear: -1.58 turnover margin (last in SEC), scored TDs on just 46.94% of red zone trips (last in SEC)
Stat to Cheer: allowed 18 sacks in 2012 (2nd in SEC)
Advanced Stats (Football Outsiders 2012 FEI Ranking): 67th out of 124 teams
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 7, Special Teams: 1
Key Defensive Returnees: S Rohan Gaines (75 tackles), LB AJ Turner (53 tackles), DE Chris Smith (52 tackles, 9.5 sacks), DT Byran Jones (52 tackles), DE Trey Flowers (6 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: C Travis Swanson, QB Brandon Allen (186 yds pass, 1 TD, 3 INT)
BearlyDoug: First thing that many of my fellow Hog fans (myself included) had to do was learn how to pronounce the man's name. Second, we had to get over the 17-14 thrashing he handed us in the 2006-07 Capital One Bowl. Once we worked through those first two things, we actually picked apart his coaching career and what was publicly known/available about him to help find some tie-ins to the Razorbacks. To be fair, he's only been a head coach at one major program, but in his 7 years there, he only had three years where he did not reach 10 (or more) wins, and he's gone bowling every year he's been a head coach.
One thing we immediately noticed was his churn rate for assistants. I will admit that I was initially concerned, however, once it came to light that Coach Bielema just wasn't given the budget to retain his staff, and that one of the reasons why he took the Hogs job is because the Razorbacks were willing to open up the budget, even if it meant that Bielema personally sacrificed part of his salary for it, we knew that we had one hell of a coach.
We started analyzing Wisconsin's defensive statistics over the past several years and were pleasantly surprised. For the previous 10+ years, Arkansas has been known to have a high scoring offense with an okay to weak defense. And here we have a coach that operates a PUNISHING defensive line while grinding it out offensively… seems like we might finally have a coach that can at least slow down Saban.
Overall, I would say that a good majority of us would consider Bielema a very solid hire, but he might have upstaged himself with the all star assistant coaching staff he assembled, as evidenced by the fantastic recruiting season the Razorbacks had earlier this year. Personally, if you can't get a Nick Saban or Les Miles, or an Urban Meyer… you might as well get a Bielema and see what he can do.
Remember this one tidbit… every SEC coach that has played for or won the national championship since 2007 has had very strong ties to or came from the Big 10 conference (Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Gene Chizik, Les Miles). Our expectations are high (though not necessarily for this year).
CFBZ: Bielema wants to play a different style of football than Bobby Petrino did at Arkansas. Which players on the current roster do you think are the most suited for this change?
BearlyDoug: To better understand the significance of a major shift in coaching philosophies, you have to take a bit of a trip down memory lane, back to the 2006 and 2007 seasons. As many Hog fans undoubtedly remember the painful loss of the 2007 Capital One Bowl, it was obvious that the Razorback players were not able to physically compete, endurance-wise, against the ground and pound style of the Wisconsin Badgers.
When Bobby Petrino came on board, one of the first things he did was focus on speed and endurance. I don't have the actual numbers, but I do believe that Petrino's teams were a bit lighter yet considerably faster than Nutt's teams. Petrino brought a blazingly quick offensive attack that loved to air it out.
Coach Bielema brings a punishing Defensive line that's designed to break down opposing offensive lines while still providing zone or man to man coverage of opposing WRs. Wisconsin had the 4th best defensive line in the nation last year and has consistently been in the top 15 every year Bielema has been coaching.
One thing we Hog fans noticed is just how big Bielema likes his front offensive line. While Bielema's strengths are on the defensive side, his O-Line is pretty well known for being able to defend/protect its Quarterback. After watching the number of hits that Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson have taken since 2008, I think many of us are breathing easier knowing that we'll finally be able to give our QB the time they need to read the field and adjust as needed.
It's interesting to note that Bielema prefers to RS his incoming Freshmen if they're not over the 300 pound mark, so they can bulk up. I'm very excited to see how the entire coaching staff takes the talent level that we have and manages it while trying to eventually finish transitioning the Arkansas players (via recruiting) into Bielema's preferred style of play offensively and defensively.
CFBZ: Bielema has brought Chris Ash with him from Wisconsin to be his DC. What changes will we see from the Arkansas defense this year?
BearlyDoug: A grave concern has always been not only our secondary, but our discipline (false start and offside penalties have always been pretty prevalent within Arkansas). As I said earlier, the fact that Bielema has a group of coaches that actually outshine him shows how effective of a leader he wants to be, and that he wants to make sure the resources are put where they are most needed.
Chris Ash may be relatively new to being a DC, but the fact that he stuck with Bielema, through thick and thin, points to a very good protégé that wants to learn from the best (Remember that Bielema comes from the Hayden Fry coaching tree). It'll be interesting to see how both Ash and Bielema adjust to SEC style play, which is very different than it is in the B1G.
If we're able to retain Ash for 3-4 years (heck, you can say that about ANY of the Razorback coaches now), I would be absolutely shocked if we were not mentioned in the same sentence as the Alabamas and LSUs of the CFB world (Title contenders, consistently).
Very good hire to complement an already outstanding group of coaches. I mean, come on… Nick Saban tried to poach one of our guys two weeks into his new job. It was SO refreshing to hear that Saban was actually turned down (how many people can say that… and live? HAH!)
CFBZ: What will make the 2013 season a success in your eyes?
Thankfully, Bielema and his team worked tirelessly for 60+ days and managed to pull together a top 25 recruiting class, while still being able to focus heavily on the type of players he needs for his system. I'm not asking for a miraculous 14-0 season (though stranger things HAVE happened), but to all of those mental midgets that are predicting a piss poor season for the Razorbacks, I have news for you. Get ready to give Bielema the Coach of the Year award. Razorbacks will not do any worse than 6-6 regular season, though I believe I've forecasted an 8-4 season, with a bowl win at the end being the cherry on top.
But… we gotta focus and embrace Coach's philosophy: No matter what, we are 1 and 0 going into the next game. Wash, rinse, repeat. Rock on, Hogs and Never Yield!
The 2012 Arkansas Razorbacks were supposed to contend for a SEC Championship. They were a veteran laden offensive team with the likes of Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo Jr, Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg and they were coming off of a Cotton Bowl victory. Paul Haynes was supposed to come in and tighten up the defense. We all know about the Bobby Petrino scandal but many thought the team would still be competitive even after he was fired. They weren't as they finished the season with eight losses. The most shocking thing about their season is that two of their assistant coaches were hired by FBS teams to be their head coach this season. Yikes.
This off-season, the Razorbacks went in a completely different direction from the Bobby Petrino era as they hired Bret Bielema. It was a very strange hire when you consider Bielema's recent comments in the past about the SEC but after thinking about it for a while it will end up being a good hire. In the long-run, hiring Bielema makes sense as he's going to basically bring the same type of style to Arkansas that Alabama and LSU are running and if you can't beat them then why not join them. In the short term though, it could be a tough year or two (or three). Petrino recruited offensive players to play in a spread type offense and that's not what Bielema will look to run. How will the players Petrino recruited (which generally speaking weren't highly touted recruits when compared with their SEC peers- 10th in SEC in 2013, 9th in 2012 and 9th in 2011) adapt to Bielema's system and how quickly can they adapt?
On offense, the Razorbacks lose their QB, their two top rushers and their leading receiver (who had 69 more receptions then the next guy on the roster). On defense, they must replace three of their top four tacklers. When Bielema took over at Wisconsin, he had a ready made situation as the Badgers were coming off of a 10-3 season and his QB was a rising senior, John Stocco, who had already been a two year starter. There will be a lot of pressure on rising soph QB Brandon Allen (who threw 49 passes last season) and incoming freshman RB Alex Collins (ranked by some as the top RB in high school football last season). If they play lights out, the Hogs have a shot.
The 2013 out of conference schedule isn't very tough but there are definitely a couple of teams that are capable of beating the Razorbacks. The Louisiana Ragin Cajuns are a well coached team with a returning QB and they've posted back-to-back 9-4 seasons. The third game against Southern Miss looks easy because the Golden Eagles didn't win a game last year under Ellis Johnson but now former Oklahoma State OC Todd Monken is in charge and if he can find a QB, Southern Miss should be able to put up some points. The toughest OOC game will come at Rutgers and Arkansas is well aware of them because Rutgers came in and beat Arkansas on their home turf last season by nine points. If Arkansas can go 4-0 against this OOC schedule then they should go bowling. If they can't then it will be a long season for Bielema. The conference schedule does no favors to Arkansas as they draw Florida and South Carolina (two of the top three teams from the East) as their two East Division opponents. Their first four games in conference? Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. Talking about rolling out the red carpet for Bielema. Ouch. If Arkansas survives that stretch then the next stretch is where they can pick up some wins as they play Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State (out of those three they beat only Auburn last season) with the only road game being Ole Miss. Finally, they finish out with Les Miles and the LSU Tigers.
Crazy things happen every year in college football. Maybe Bielema takes this group and overachieves with them and gets them into the upper-half of the SEC West but if I was a betting man I wouldn't make that bet. Vegas has set the Arkansas over/under for wins at 5.5 and there is a reason for that as they will probably struggle to get to a bowl this season. Make no mistake about it, if Arkansas does get to a bowl game in Bielema's debut season it should be considered a wild success after what happened last season and all of the losses that they have coming into this season. Razorbacks fans, welcome to rebuilding mode. Give Bielema a chance because he should do a pretty good job but don't over-set your expectations for 2013.
Previous 2013 Pre-Season Previews: