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Arkansas Fight Panel Discussion: Week 12 - End Of Year Thoughts, Bielema, Coaches, 2014 Prospects

We're all expecting the LSU game to go about the same way, so in lieu of asking the same types of game-specific questions we usually do, we decided to talk about the year as a whole.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

1. Bret Bielema after one year. Thoughts?

Drew: Right now, I don't find myself thinking "I wish we had hired ______ instead."  There's some legitimate concerns about some of his in-game decisions, though.  Whether that's because he's stubborn, just plain stupid, or because he has too much confidence in his players' abilities is up for debate.  I'm leaning toward the latter, but that could change over the next few years.

Brent: Not great. I still think it's too early into his tenure to give up hope, but we've seen (and heard) enough to surmise that he's not a great in-game decision maker. Most, if not all, coaches have one shortcoming or another. It looks like this is Bielema's. Can he be good enough in all other facets to overcome it? I think so, but admittedly, this is an exercise in faith to some extent.

Graham: So far, I'm not impressed. He won less games than John L. Smith. Sure I would much rather have Bielema going forward, but three wins and potentially nine straight losses to end a season is less than impressive.

Scottie: It's too early to call his time here a failure, but not too early to say it was a disappointing start. I think he vastly underestimated the amount of rebuilding that needed to be had coming in. I like that he's bringing accountability and a level of discipline to the program. I'm like Drew on this. I've never thought to myself that (coach's name) would have been a better hire. Bielema can get the job done, it's just really going to test the patience of Hog fans before it happens.

Kevin: He just about has nowhere to go but up, right? Question is how long is "up" going to take and will he be around to see it? I guess I should define "up." At this point, a .500 or above season. I remember how well I thought of his hire back last December, an experienced coach that has a tradition of winning with not the best talent in his conference. But something I don't think I considered enough (and did Jeff Long) is that with a rebuilding job like this, something he has never done in a league not his own, hiring Bielema was not all that different from hiring an up and comer type coach. Alvarez handed him the keys to a well running machine. We handed him a chunk of scrap metal and have asked him to make a set of keys to a clunker in  bad need of a tuneup. So, yeah, I am going to cut him some slack for that. But at the same time, these fake punts, the quarterback situation (we needed Mitchell still on this team), the general continued sloppy play, these things make me wonder if he is capable of putting down a standard and getting his coaches and players to meet that standard, using some Nick Saban language here. Time is what it is going to take still to find out if the Bret Bielema Experiment is one that we'll live to cherish or regret.

Ryan: This is an extremely polarizing statement, but he has coached like a rich man's Houston Nutt. A fullback dive on 2nd and 14? At least run a smoke draw, brotha.

Randy: It is impossible to overcome bad quarterback play. The worst passing stats Bielema dealt with at Wisconsin: 157 yards per game (2012), 54% completion and 11 touchdown passes (2008). The Razorbacks have a 211-yard rushing average (not adjusted for the handful of sacks), about average for the Badgers during Bielema's seven seasons as their head coach. The real surprise was the absence of precision in the passing game. Arkansas's at 48% completion with one game left -- and below 150 yards passing on average. Last time a Razorback starting QB finished at 48% -- freshman, part-season starter Barry Lunney in 1992, Arkansas's first year in the Southeastern Conference.

Frequency of passing failure helps explain why the Hogs have 2,300 yards rushing but only 13 touchdowns on the ground, or as many as they had in 2008, when Bobby Petrino's first Arkansas offense ran for 1,000 fewer yards.

Brandon Allen might have had a better season at quarterback, had he even one anchor receiver. This is likely to become to the first year since 2005 that Arkansas's leading pass catcher gained fewer than 500 yards. High risk has not produced higher reward. With one long play on Saturday, tight end Jeremy Sprinkle became the only Razorback receiver as high as 17 yards per reception. Among mainstays, freshman tight end Hunter Henry -- not a wideout -- leads with a 16-yard average.

Surprisingly, the passing game rarely did things the easy way. Pass plays included very few of the high-percentage throws that were a staple for Bielema's Wisconsin quarterbacks. Far too many passes were of the long, desperate, low-odds variety. The big question is why. Who wanted this kind of offense? Low probability of success throwing = little penalty for defenses overloading the line of scrimmage against the run. The Hogs' two young star tailbacks scored eight rushing touchdowns between them in 11 games and more than 300 carries. While the offensive line was inadequate enough to require two veterans be replaced by freshmen, the only issue with blocking was that it wasn't superhuman enough to overcome the offense's lack of options.

With the QB play this poor, Arkansas could have used an option in the running game, as in triple option. Allen proved far too fragile to run the football. Eventually, coordinator Jim Chaney inserted end around plays as a makeshift form of misdirection. The lack of counter-action to make linebackers hesitate made the Hogs' running game toothless in the red zone. As the season developed, the offense was less and less suited to the ability of the players.

Bielema was the man talking about big-boy football at SEC Media Days. It is hard to believe that the offensive system strayed far from what he asked Chaney to implement. Rutgers, Ole Miss and Mississippi State could have been victories with even slightly more offensive diversification. The defense allowed more than 30 points per game, but this season's failure feels like it was decided by a poorly designed and implemented offense.

2. Before the season started, a lot of fans thought this was the best coaching staff in Arkansas history. How do you feel about the staff today? Should all of them come back next year?

Scottie: I think the coaching staff has done what it can with the personnel at hand. I believe the coaches we have now are good enough. The players we have right now are not. I truly believe some of the players aren't coachable and can't carry what they learn in practice to the field on Saturdays. My only issue with the coaches is the questionable play-calling on offense. Other than that, I think it's just a personnel problem.

Graham: I still like the staff mainly because of the work they are doing on the recruiting trail. It's hard to be held responsible for poor talent when you didn't bring in said talent.. So again here, I'll let them have at least another year. There will be an evaluation period, but I don't see Bielema letting any of them go.

Randy: One has to wonder how well Chaney fits with Bielema, given the results. The offense was botched, winning the effort to surpass 200 yards rushing per game, but losing on any truly important measure. How Chaney and Bielema interacted along the way to this point -- fewer than two touchdowns per game dating from Rutgers -- deserves high scrutiny.

On defense, Arkansas had no good solutions at linebacker or in the secondary. Coaches favored size over speed a little too much, and maybe they took too long to give up on veterans who were in over their heads. A simple measure of how this season went -- journeyman safety Alan Turner led the Razorbacks in tackles.

On balance, though, Arkansas needs consistency far more than anything else. The program needs its coaching staff to be whole long enough to recruit for a few seasons. Maybe they could shift assignments, or clarify the chain of command, but this staff should not be measured solely on how well it performed with someone else's players.

Josh: Whether the staff was the best assembled at Arkansas or not really doesnt matter. On paper they had the best resume but without more time to develop their individual groups it is hard to tell. I dont see a reason to cut anyone loose after this first season. Some may have better opportunities. (Chaney as a HC at lower level),  and Shannon specifically may feel the need to move on, but will this lead to improvement? Hard to say. Bielema had some disagreement with his OC at Wisconsin last season so it seems to me there needs to be some change in the balance of power there next year. Either Bielema has full control over the gameplan or Chaney is allowed to open things up.

Kevin: After a 3-9 season, I think each member of the coaching staff has to be evaluated and changes made where changes need to be made. If Bielema is going to "embrace the transfer process," he needs to also embrace the coach firing process if he can get someone to put on staff who is capable of doing a better job. Or at the least shift some responsibilities around to where coaches have a better opportunity at getting better results. Don't teams hire consultants? Probably wouldn't be a bad idea to get somebody to come in and give him some outside feedback to go along with his own evaluation of the staff. Specifically, if he and Chaney are not working well together, part ways and get someone who does mess better with what Bielema wants to do on offense.

Ryan: I never thought that, but it was sold to everyone that way. They're definitely to most expensive coaching staff. It's deep in the season and fumble problems haven't been fixed. That's a position where talent isn't the issue and can't be used as an excuse. I think Randy Shannon can get a better job, if he wants out. Unless someone leaves on their own, there will be no firings.

Brent: It's hard to really know how much blame/credit coaches deserve most of the time. Example: Our wide receivers struggled throughout the year, but is it fair to blame WR coach Michael Smith for their drops? If so, how much do you assign? For the most part, I believe the lack of execution of these kinds of basic skills is on the players. It's the position coaches' jobs to pay attention to the minutiae, and honestly, I don't think we ever got to a point with most of our position groups where we could afford to bother with minutiae this season when the big, obvious stuff (catching, tackling, etc.) was still giving us so much trouble.

On the other hand, Jim Chaney has been a disappointment thus far -- specifically his in-game management and play-calling. I have no doubt that he's a talented when it comes to drawing up a gameplan -- see Arkansas' first drive of just about every game this year for proof. The problem is everything that comes after. A lot like our quarterback, our offensive strategy seemed like a confused mess most of the time, punctuated by the rare hope-giving moments of competence.

Drew: On paper, it's still the most "high-profile" staffs in recent history (people tend to forget about the monster staffs that Broyles had), especially the non-Wisconsin guys.  But, coaching only goes so far in the face of talent and depth issues.  I can't pick anyone out that I think needs to be gone, but it wouldn't surprise me to see a little shake-up in the offseason.  Ash and Partridge are safe for obvious reasons.  Joel Thomas and Barry Lunney are probably safe, too, since RB and TE were the least of our problems this year.  Despite how bad the receivers were this year, Michael Smith will probably be retained for his recruiting ties to Louisiana.  Truthfully, I feel like if anyone leaves, it will be because they make the decision to move on.  Randy Shannon is gone if he gets a DC offer, and if Saban decides to make another run at Pittman, I doubt we could outbid him again.  Chaney's a bit harder to read - I have no idea how well he and Bielema are actually working together, and if there's any disagreement about offensive philosophy between the two, we might be looking for a new OC.

3. If Arkansas hangs on against Rutgers, is this season any different, other than one extra win in the record books (yay for hypotheticals!)?

Graham: Heading into SEC play with a 4-0 record, including a road "W" over what we thought then was a pretty decent Rugters team, is better on the confidence -- for fans and players alike --than losing on the road before heading into that four-game gauntlet. Then this team may have had the confidence that they could hang on to a lead which may result in wins at Florida and over Mississippi State. That puts them at six wins and a bowl game... There I go again. I hate Optimistic Razorback Fan Graham sometimes.

Ryan: No. It would have just prolonged the illusion of the possibility of a bowl game.

Randy: Rutgers revealed the limitations of the straight-ahead running scheme and the lack of pass coverage ability in the secondary. Had one of those been fixed, the outcomes of several games might have been different. The Rutgers loss was a symptom not a cause.

Kevin: Yes, I think so. We feel like bad season, but we didn't slip lower and did beat a team that beat us last year. Still, we would likely not have any conference wins, so that would be a big concern. After Friday, 3-9 on top of non-conference wins is going to feel worse than 4-8 with a win on the road versus Rutgers, a team that turned out to be not all that great this year either.

Drew: No, probably not.  Rutgers has never seemed like the tipping point for this season.  There have been times in nearly every game since (with the exception of Alabama) where we looked good or were at least being competitive. And then, it's like someone flips a switch and we collapse.  Usually, it's a Brandon Allen interception (TAMU, Florida, SC).  It's been incredibly frustrating to watch.

Scottie: Probably not. I think we still lose seven straight games and our lives become miserable because of it. It's too bad we couldn't win at Rutgers and have Florida scheduled for later in the year, then pull out the Mississippi State game. You're right, hypotheticals are fun!

Brent: Nah. Unlike last year, this team fought through every loss (God bless 'em). I don't think a win in NJ would've changed anything that happened afterward.

Josh: That loss was a factor in how the rest of the season went, but injuries were the most dominant factor in the season. The toughest part of a season in the SEC is keeping players healthy. If Brandon Allen, Robert Thomas, AJ Turner, Rohan Gaines, and Keon Hatcher were all able to stay healthy games against Ole Miss, Miss St. and Auburn would have had different results.

4. Is there one disappointment that stands out among all the rest for you?

Graham: The offensive performance. While I didn't expect it to be on the level that Malzahn has running in Auburn, I did think the meshing of Jim Chaney and Bret Bielema's style would be more impressive than it was. Some of that comes down to the quarterback running the offense, but they showed glimpses -- though minute -- of being able to run the offense. Maybe it is the two clashing styles were never meant to coexist, but I still have hope that with Chaney's quarterbacks coaching the offense can improve.

Randy: The biggest dud was the passing game. Brandon Allen rarely looked long, then threw short. Usually it was look long, heave long, incomplete. What leads a quarterback coach as accomplished as Jim Chaney to this low state? Lack of big-play receivers does not explain the lack of short, high-percentage throws.

Kevin: Brandon Allen not being any better than what we've seen. We needed to be able to build a foundation around the starting quarterback, but I don't think that got built. His best game was his first game. And then he pretty much regressed the rest of the season. Part B to this disappointment is that we didn't have a capable number two go to compete against him as a good backup.

Scottie: For me it's the 104-0 run Spurrier and Saban hung on us in that brutal two game span in the middle of the losing streak. It was absolutely embarrassing. And half of that came on our own field on homecoming. The team was literally beaten down and showed little to no fight whatsoever. That was rock bottom.

Drew: It's still the defense, especially the secondary.  I wasn't expecting any miracles, but when upperclassmen like Tevin Mitchell have to be benched in favor of freshmen like Jared Collins, that's not "progress."  How many teams/QBs set school and personal records against us this year?  Too many.

Ryan: That there isn't enough alcohol for me to forget these past two seasons. Seriously, all the fake punt and onside kick calls. It's one thing to be aggressive, it's another to assume your opponent hasn't watched any film on you this season. I'm truly disappointed in myself for over estimating this team by predicting they would go 4-8 and at least kick a field goal against Bama.

Brent: I'm disappointed in Jim Chaney. I'm disappointed in Brandon Allen's lack of development. I'm disappointed that the seniors had to go out the way they did. I'm disappointed that the offensive line needed two true freshmen to solidify it. I'm disappointed that we can't cover anybody. I'm disappointed that our lack of ability to cover people means we have to give receivers and 10-yard cushion. I'm disappointed that none of the JUCOs had much of an impact. I'm disappointed by a lot of things. So, short answer: No.

Josh: Just the overall lack of improvement from Game 1 to now. Each and every game the players and coaches build on what works and add to the mental library carrying forward to the next game. There is a quote from Jon Gruden that says "You never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse." In many aspects this team regressed as the season went on.

5. What was this season's biggest surprise?

Graham: Going on with my biggest disappointment, it has to be the offense. To echo Drew, I was expecting more out of Brandon Allen, especially with the pedigree he came into the program with as a heralded recruit. I know recruiting rankings and what Trent (Elite 11 camps) say aren't always 100%. I thought his poor performances in 2012 when he subbed in for the injured Tyler Wilson was due to lack of practice during the week. Come to find out, given the opportunity and all of the chances as the 1st team guy, he simply didn't have it.

Randy: Again - feels like I'm hammering on this - it was very surprising that Arkansas would be well under 50% pass completion, something Bielema's teams never approached at Wisconsin. Pass accuracy was an essential staple for Bielema's best teams, and many times we watched Brandon Allen do nothing but look long and ignore anything underneath. What. The. Hell. Happened. That is all I want to know. The high number of wasted downs -- between incompletions and obvious runs that were stonewalled -- ruined the season. The offense was broken. As bad as the defense was at times, it would have been good enough, had the offense not been so inefficient.

Ryan: That I would look back at the John L. Smith year as "the good ol' days" with your crazy uncle.

Scottie: That's easy. I was stunned at how limited and consistently awful the passing game was. Throwing only 13 times for 30 yards in the 45 point loss to South Carolina? Really? That told me the coaches had no confidence in the passing game at all. It's put a lot of unfair pressure on Collins and Williams to carry the offensive load.

Kevin: Hmm, the eight game losing streak, about to be nine. I didn't see that coming. I knew we would not be world beaters, but I've never seen, nor have any of us, this much losing piled into one season. And Bielema wearing those long sleeves during the hot September games! Maybe that is a symbol of some kind? Coach needs to do some adjusting to life down south and in the SEC.

Brent: The disappearance of Otha Peters and AJ Turner. I know Turner was redshirting due to injury, but I get a weird sense that we've moved on from these two for some reason after they looked so promising in 2012. I'm not second-guessing the coaches on this one -- I'm not around the program, and I'm sure they're playing the guys they feel like will help us win games. It's just weird.

Josh: The absolute biggest surprise was the immediate impact of Alex Collins. Running back is one of the easier positions to contribute at right away but the fact that he was able be at the top in the SEC as a freshmen is a huge surprise. What I felt we would see was more of a rotation between Jonathan Williams, Kody Walker, Keiro Small, and Alex Collins sparingly until midway through the season at which point he would have a larger role. He is the real deal, and in my opinion was the biggest surprise.

Drew: I was surprised with just how bad Brandon Allen is.  I defended him early on, but I'm officially off the bandwagon.  If we don't at least have a legitimate QB competition this spring, we're in big trouble.  On a brighter note, it was nice to see that Alex Collins, Hunter Henry, Dan Skipper, and Denver Kirkland were all as good as advertised. They're going to be an important foundation for the team over the next 3 years.

6. How do you feel about this team's prospects for next season?

Graham: After watching the last nine games of the season, how can you expect outcomes to be much better? Starting off the year on The Plains, against an explosive Texas Tech offense, and recent #MACtion powerhouse Northern Illionois is a beast of a beginning. Then comes conference play, where there could be six more ranked opponents. The Razorbacks will win the award for toughest schedule.

Randy: Enough young players are around to address many issues, but tell me what Arkansas's going to do about quarterback, the offensive line, and the linebackers. Then I'll tell you how next season might turn out. The Hogs need a complete overhaul at QB and LB (beyond promising freshman Brooks Ellis), and the offensive line must replace an all-conference center and get better, period. Passing accuracy should be 60% not 48%. The offensive system must develop flexibility, deceptiveness, and quit relying on trick plays to approximate those qualities. That means better leadership.

Scottie: I don't think a bowl game is in our future. We're looking at a 4, maybe 5 win season at best. Next season's schedule does us no favors, either. I expect to see improvement, but you're kidding yourself if you expect to see a lot of success. We'll just have to enjoy Rafe Peavey, and watch Alex Collins chase down DMAC's rushing records.

Ryan: I don't see any immediate impact 5-star linebackers and corners in this class, so I don't see drastic improvement.

Kevin: Well, the schedule again does them no favors by throwing them to the Tigers on the road to start the season. But you can't do anything about the schedule. Right now, an above .500 season would surprise me more than a below season. My hope right now for the above rests on current talent improving, the recruiting of new guys who can make a quick impact, and these coaches having learned more than a thing or two about competing in the SEC.

Brent: Eh. I'll just go with the fall-back answer I used entering this season: Arkansas will be as good as its quarterback. It might seem ironic to say so about a team that wants to run most of the time, but we have to be able to force teams to respect the threat of the pass if we're ever going to run the way we want to -- either that, or start incorporating some option into the game plan. One way or another, the QB must be acknowledged and accounted for by the opposing defense. Otherwise we're playing 10 on 11.

Josh: The offense will improve, whether it is BA, AA, or Peavey as the quarterback really does not matter. On the other side of the ball a lot of young guys were able to see considerable playing time that will help but they are still lacking at LB,Safety and Corner. The young guys on the outside in Hines, Dean, and Collins have the better on ball coverage skills but as Coach Bielema said eloquently "they are a little light in the britches". Playing against teams with such physical WRS makes it tough to bring them down when at such a disadvantage. An offseason developing in the weight room will help, but Chris Ash really needs to recruit some guys at those positions that have the size\speed to play right away without adjusting his scheme to cover up their weaknesses. In his defensive philosophy you can get away with having 1 or 2 that are not great 1on1 tacklers but when your entire secondary is undersized it makes it very difficult.

Drew: Not very good.  I thought that we'd at least have a more favorable schedule, but that doesn't appear to be true.  We trade a bad Rutgers team for Texas Tech and a bad Florida team (did anyone see them lose to Georgia Southern this weekend?) for Georgia.  I'm not expecting to go bowling, but winning 4-5 games would indicate progress.

Doc: I believe the minimum goal for every program should be to make it to a bowl game, and we'll spend the offseason saying that's the goal for Arkansas next season. When you're a bad team, the schedule always looks tough, so the Hogs will have to beat some teams that are expected to be decent next year to do that, but that's got to be the goal next year.