It's finally the time of year for stuff that matters! Congratulations, everybody. We made it.
We all know the basic storylines to follow. Brandon Allen's got to be better. The defense has to be better. The receivers have to be better. The coaches have to have developed the players during the offseason.
However, most projections at the best end of the spectrum have the Hogs topping out at six wins in the regular season. The Vegas over/under is set at 4.5. Three-win people are downers. Four/five-win people are rational. Six-win people are optimistic. Seven or more are the loonies.
If it's widely understood that this is another stepping-stone season and no one expects to play for championships come December - unless you're the type that considers winning in Shreveport to qualify as a championship - what really is at stake this year?
A lot. This year if nothing else is an opportunity to change the narrative about the program, and if Bielema is going to be successful at Arkansas, it's imperative that he change the national narrative about the Razorbacks.
You may or may not have noticed, but ever since the motorcycle accident, or at least since the Louisiana-Monroe game, there hasn't been just a whole lot of respect thrown Arkansas' way, especially from those outside the state.
You may think what those outside the state think doesn't matter, but keep in mind, perception is everything in college football. Schools have to sell images everyday to pollsters, awards voters, recruits, people around the recruits, media, and now (not so much this year, but maybe one day) a selection committee.
Looking just at recruiting, after K.J. Hill's commitment today there's only one more major in-state prospect Arkansas might sign in this recruiting class. Pretty much the entire second half of this class will be players from outside the state who may not have any built-in loyalty or familiarity with the Razorbacks.
Those prospects see all the jokes and the snark and the low predictions that everyone else sees. They see the preview magazines all summer that all predicted Arkansas to finish last. All other SEC fans expect to beat Arkansas easily this season. That's the result of going 0-8. Those of us who follow the program closely may understand it's more complicated than that and why improvement is expected, but it's an excruciatingly long 9-month off-season when you end the year on a nine-game losing streak. That's all most people are going to see.
That's why "they'll be better but it won't show up in the record" can't happen. The Hogs have to beat somebody. Are we going to pretend the SEC West all of a sudden will be easier in 2015? 2016? No way. The league is strong and has plenty of quality recruiting classes lined up. It'll be difficult for the foreseeable future.
Bielema needs something tangible that he can sell to everybody that things are getting better. We're all thrilled that grades are better and no one's been arrested this year, but that doesn't make fans dig up much donations or many recruits to sign up. Only winning does that.
If Arkansas can pull an upset or two and get people talking about a team on the rise, he'll have it. He and his assistants can go into those places outside of Arkansas and show that the program is growing. He can start showing that his Wisconsin record wasn't just a byproduct of being handed the keys to Barry Alvarez's program. He can lead the program into 2015 with respect and expectations of something more significant. Fans might be excited by the prospect of Brandon Allen getting another year as starter instead of going into spring looking at another quarterback controversy and spending the summer worrying.
Even though the roster wasn't his fault last year, and to a lesser extent still isn't this year, going 0-8 has had an effect on Bielema's perception. Many have made the point that Bielema shouldn't be judged on 2013 and even to a point for 2014 because of those roster issues. That's true to an extent. It's certainly a fact that Bielema doesn't have a team that's completely his design. It's getting there, but it's not there yet. It does take time to build a team because he can't recruit a full two-deep in one class.
However, that shouldn't give Bielema a pass on the mistakes he might have made last year. Remember, this is the first time he completely took over a brand new program. He'd been a coordinator at Wisconsin for two years and Alvarez was still his boss when he took the helm in Madison. At Arkansas, it's all been on him and it's fair to say he might do some things differently if he had the chance. Perhaps he should have watched film from 2012 to get a better idea of what he had to work with before spring practice. Maybe he should have instituted a team jargon like Hoganese immediately so the team wouldn't have had issues communicating on the field last season.
I actually think things like Hoganese are a big deal because it shows that they are fixing the mistakes from last season. All those new job surprises are gone now, so at least in theory, Bielema should be much more comfortable now than he was last year. Once in the spring he was asked after a practice what the biggest difference between last year and this year is and he quickly said, "Knowing." That may not sound significant but I think it's a huge factor in this program's improvement from Year 1 to Year 2.
Bielema and the Razorbacks have a chance to prove all of that. They have a chance to make a case that with a little stability, they do have the talent and ability to play quality football. It will be a lot easier to dismiss 2013 as an unfortunate victim of the post-Petrino insanity, but things are beginning to return back to normal. Another three or four win season will only strengthen the chorus of doubters, whether that's fair or not.
Every game in 2014 is an opportunity. There are 12 chances to show people that his plan is working, and that's what this season is about. It's an opportunity to start earning back respect and change the narrative going into 2015.
The 2014 offseason wasn't very eventful. There were no arrests and few recruiting commitments. But everywhere fans looked in the endless stream of season previews were reminders of the last couple of years and low expectations for this season. That doesn't need to happen again.
After nine excruciating months, Bielema and the Hogs have a chance to start telling a new story Saturday afternoon.
- Arkansas vs Auburn Preview: What to Watch For Saturday
- Arkansas vs Auburn Preview: Q&A with College and Magnolia
- Arkansas Fight Panel Discussion Part II: Let's Talk About Auburn
- The Weekend That Will Be: Week 1 Predictions...And A New Challenge
- The Arkansas Passing Game, Jim Chaney Naked (Bootleg) And What to Watch Vs Auburn