It’s still early, but Arkansas' third season under Bret Bielema obviously hasn't gone according to plan.
After finishing last season on a hot streak and returning the majority of its starters on both sides of the ball, the national media was enamored with Arkansas' potential in 2015. Four games into the season, however, the Razorbacks are 1-3 with nonconference losses to Toledo and Texas Tech, and an overtime loss to Texas A&M.
If Arkansas is unable to upset a few teams in conference play, the Razorbacks won't make a bowl game and will have seen major regression in Bielema's third season, which provides little to no hope in his subsequent seasons. Unless the Razorbacks are competing with other teams in a Quiz Bowl, Bielema hasn't done much to prove he deserves a fourth year as the Razorbacks' head coach.
Another losing season, an uncanny ability to lose games decided by fewer than 10 points and his big mouth (even after losing to Toledo and Texas Tech) should be enough to send him on his way. If Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long agrees, here are some candidates he should consider to replace Bielema at the end of the season.
Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles: It wouldn't be the first time Arkansas offered a successful college coach struggling in the NFL a chance to succeed in college football again... The Eagles are 1-2 and, much like the Razorbacks, are having difficulty establishing their identity offensively. Before beating the Jets 24-17 last week, the Eagles were 0-2 and since the NFL's expansion to a 12-team playoff in 1990, just 11.2 percent of teams that started 0-2 have played in the postseason.
Unless Philadelphia defies those odds, it would mark the second time in three seasons that the Kelly-led Eagles would fail to make the playoffs. Given the early season struggles after deciding to make so many major changes to the roster in the offseason, Kelly may be willing, and may need to listen to a college football program that could offer him a competitive salary and top-notch facilities.
Scott Frost, Oregon Offensive Coordinator: Speaking of Oregon coaches... Current Oregon coach Mark Helfrich was Oregon's offensive coordinator when Kelly was the Ducks head coach. Prior to that, Kelly was the offensive coordinator for Oregon while Mike Bellotti was the head coach. So basically, the Oregon offensive coordinator has a good chance of eventually becoming a successful head coach, so why not give Scott Frost a chance? Unlike Bielema's slow style of play, Kelly and Frost would likely sell tickets based on exciting offenses alone. Creative offensive minds and fast-paced offenses have attained a great deal of success in the SEC recently, after all.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn: Gus Malzahn is perhaps the SEC's most successful creative offensive mind implementing the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Much like Bielema and Kelly, Malzahn is only in his third season in his current role, but has faced early-season trouble. With a SEC title and a national championship appearance already under his belt, he's unlikely to be fired or look to run, but anything is possible. Hiring Malzahn would be divisive among Razorbacks fans, but ultimately, winning cures all, and Malzahn has proven his offensive style can win games, and championships, in the SEC West.
Sonny Dykes, California: Sonny Dykes' first two seasons at California were forgettable. The Golden Bears won just one game in his first season and five in his second. But now he has the team 4-0 with wins over Grambling State, San Diego State, Texas and Washington. He may be on the verge of turning in the program's first winning record since 2011, but Arkansas offers something to Dykes that Cal never could; the Razorbacks are the premiere program in their home state. Meanwhile, Cal has to overcome in-state competitors like Stanford, UCLA and USC in conference play alone.
Dykes' name was mentioned during Arkansas' coaching search in 2012, before he left Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs won 17 games in his last two seasons. Prior to taking over for Derek Dooley in Ruston, Louisiana, Dykes was the offensive coordinator for record-setting offenses at Arizona from 2007-2009, and served as co-offensive coordinator under Mike Leach at Texas Tech from 2005-2006.
Kirby Smart, Alabama Defensive Coordinator: Based on the success of electrifying offenses, both on the scoreboard and popularity among fans, the majority of the names on this list are offensive minds. But the SEC has more commonly been known for its tough, physical defenses, including years of dominant defense by the Alabama Crimson Tide. Much of that success could and should be attributed to Nick Saban, but Kirby Smart has also played a key role in it, leading to speculation of him as a head coaching candidate for several open positions in the last few years. Smart has led the Alabama defense since 2008 and in his seven seasons, the Crimson Tide have won three national championships and have made three Sugar Bowl appearances. During his tenure as the defensive coordinator, Alabama has held opponents to fewer than 10 points 40 times, including 15 shutouts.
Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia Defensive Coordinator: Jeremy Pruitt worked with Smart and Saban as an assistant coach for Alabama from 2010-2012, and serving as the director of player development for the Crimson Tide for three years before that. Since leaving Alabama, Pruitt has been the defensive coordinator for Florida State and Georgia. Pruitt is in his second season with the Bulldogs after they ranked 17th in total defense last year (337.2 yards per game). In his only season at Florida State, the Seminoles won the BCS National Championship and had the top-ranked scoring defense (10.7 points per game) and No. 3 total defense (248.2 yards per game).
Justin Fuente, Memphis: Justin Fuente will be a popular name on coaching candidate lists at the end of the season. He has Memphis 4-0 for the first time since 1961 after defeating Cincinnati 53-46 last week in front of a sold out Liberty Bowl. Memphis recorded 570 yards of total offense against the Bearcats, and has scored at least 40 points in each of its last six games.
Fuente's first two seasons as the Memphis head coach were nothing to be impressed by, totaling just seven wins during that span, but he turned the program around in his third season (2014). The Tigers posted a 10-3 record, losing to UCLA by seven points, to Ole Miss 27-3 and to Houston by four points.
Before going to Memphis, Fuente spent three seasons as the co-offensive coordinator for TCU. The Horned Frogs totaled 36 wins in the three seasons Fuente served as co-offensive coordinator, including the program's only undefeated season (2010) in the Modern Era.
Tom Herman, Houston: Tom Herman is another head coach in the American Athletic Conference whose previous success came as an offensive coordinator. Herman is in his first season coaching the Cougars, accepting the position after Ohio State won the Big Ten Championship last season. Herman received the Broyles Award, awarded to the top assistant coach annually.
Herman has the Cougars off to a 3-0 start, with wins over Tennessee Tech, Louisville and Texas State. In each of his three seasons at Ohio State, the Buckeyes won at least 12 games.
Chad Morris, SMU: Chad Morris and the SMU Mustangs just had a tough loss to James Madison to fall to 1-3, but Morris is a strong offensive mind. The Mustangs are averaging 33.5 points per game this season.
Similar to Fuente and Herman, Morris became an American Athletic Conference head coach after his success as an offensive coordinator for a Power Five conference program. Morris served as the offensive coordinator at Clemson from 2011-2014. During that timeframe, the Tigers won at least 10 games each season and established 127 offensive records. In the three seasons prior to adding Morris to his staff, Dabo Swinney won four, nine and six games.
Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky: Jeff Brohm took over at Western Kentucky after Bobby Petrino was hired by Louisville. Brohm led the Hilltoppers to an 8-5 record in 2014 and is 3-1 so far this season with wins over Vanderbilt, Louisiana Tech and Miami (OH).
Prior to Petrino’s departure, Brohm was the offensive coordinator for WKU. He also served as an assistant coach at UAB, Illinois, Florida Atlantic and Louisville.
Bobby Petrino, Louisville: Not happening...
In reality, Long will likely keep Bielema to coach the 2016 season. He seems to believe in Bielema and will likely give him at least four seasons, especially after his recent contract extension. But his buyout doesn't decrease from $15.4 million to $11.7 million until Jan. 1, 2018. So a mediocre fourth season without compelling evidence to keep him could be the final nail in the coffin of his career at Arkansas.
The timing and the replacement candidates are subject to change, but Bielema's end result is likely the same.