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Is There Hope for the Bret Bielema Era at Arkansas?

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The end of the 2016 season has shaken the faith of many Razorback fans.

Belk Bowl - Arkansas v Virginia Tech Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Four years into the Bret Bielema Era, the most positive, homer-fied take you can make about the state of the Razorbacks is that they’re steady. They’ve won 6, 7, and 7 regular season games the last three seasons. A more accurate description would be that the Hogs are treading water, if not downright regressing.

While the win/loss total has been consistent, the quality of play has been anything but. In 2014, Arkansas’ losses were almost all narrow, leading many to have faith that a breakthrough was around the corner. It did eventually come, with fantastic wins over LSU and Ole Miss. But two years later, we’re still waiting on the next breakthrough, and there’s no evidence to believe it’s around the corner.

Arkansas’ losses are no longer narrow near-misses, they’ve become embarrassing blowouts or meltdowns. Many Hog fans thought the 2015 defense might have been the worst in program history, but the 2016 effort topped it with performances that rivaled the worst of Big 12 defenses, and becoming a national joke in the process - despite returning almost every starter.

Offensively, the team proved to be nationally elite at the end of 2015, but a significant amount of roster turnover proved to be too much to handle. Dan Enos, Austin Allen and the offense had their moments, but they were still shut out in the second half three times, and in two other games only managed one score, one of which was just a field goal. It’s hard not to feel the coaches were simply outcoached during halftime and the second half.

There have been some reports after the Belk Bowl describing the game as an all-time meltdown. Something of historic proportions. It may have been one of the biggest halftime leads given up, but it was nothing unusual. Second-half collapses have been a hallmark of the Bielema Era, beginning with his very first loss at Arkansas, a game the Hogs led 24-7 in the third quarter. Here’s a brief history

  • 2013: Led 24-7 at Rutgers, lost. Led Mississippi State 10-0, then 17-10 entering the 4th quarter, lost in overtime. Led LSU 27-21 in the 4th quarter, lost.
  • 2014: Led A&M 28-14 entering the 4th quarter, lost in OT. Led Alabama 13-7 entering the 4th quarter, lost. Led Mississippi State 10-7 at halftime, lost. Led Missouri 14-6 at halftime, lost.
  • 2015: Tied Texas Tech 21-all at halftime, lost by double digits. Led A&M 21-13 in the 4th quarter, lost. Led Alabama 7-3 at halftime, lost by double digits. Led Mississippi State 42-31 in the 4th quarter, lost.
  • 2016: Ties A&M at halftime, lost by 21. Led Missouri 24-7 at halftime, lost. Led Virginia Tech 24-0 at halftime, lost by double digits.

So this is not some fluky thing that happened at the end of 2016. It’s just the latest and most egregious part of a troubling larger trend that’s existed as long as Bielema has been at Arkansas. It predates Robb Smith. It predates Dan Enos. It predates this year’s offensive line. It’s been a consistent problem.

The offense notoriously struggled in goal line situations, most notably in the Texas A&M game when they scored only three points in three 1st-and-goal situations. The offensive line, which was supposed to be Bielema’s calling card, was as bad as the patchwork line Bobby Petrino tried to put together in his very first season, in which Casey Dick and other quarterbacks were sacked 46 times. Austin Allen was sacked 35 times this year, good for 103rd in the nation.

For all the credit the offense receives, what was really the highlight of 2016? Somehow scoring 30 in a blowout loss to Alabama?

In his previous years, Bielema could appropriately point to depth issues as a result of poor recruiting from his predecessors, but not anymore. He’s been here four years. This is almost entirely his roster. If there are depth issues, that’s on him.

With all of those issues combined, for the first time in the Bielema Era, I’m struggling to find optimism in this program. Earlier this year, we wrote that for all of Mike Anderson’s on-the-court struggles at Arkansas, there were reasons - primarily in the promise if coming blue-chip recruits - to believe the basketball program was on the upswing. I can’t say the same thing about the football program.

There are still good players on Arkansas’ roster, and there appears to be some good players in this recruiting class, and a couple of good ones already committed in the 2018 class. But are there enough good players for Arkansas to take another step forward? It’s hard to find that right now.

Perhaps Devwah Whaley can evolve into a superstar or Austin Allen can show he can consistently perform at a high level, but that still leaves plenty of questions with the defense. So far the only solution we’ve heard from the coaches is that they might try out some 3-4 defense, but that will require more linebackers on the field from a program that has frequently used a 4-2-5 precisely because they haven’t had enough quality linebackers.

I believe part of Bielema’s problem is that 2015 should have been a money year for him and this program. It’s easy to see a path to double digit wins. All they had to do was beat Toledo and not hand the Mississippi State game away, or hold on against A&M. Even if they’d lost that Ole Miss game, it still would’ve been possible. And a season that successful would have earned Bielema some much-deserved credit with the fans, but he didn’t, and now fans are still waiting around after Year 4 wondering where some sort of breakthrough will come. Mike Anderson had his 2015 season, but Bielema might have missed his first best chance for something like that.

As a result Bielema will be coaching with the type of hot seat pressure he may not have ever truly felt before. He’ll at least hear it from fans. I don’t know what the team would have to do to put his job in jeopardy next year. I have a hard time believing Jeff Long would fire him with another 6-8 win season. Considering how great the program seems to be off the field, Long seems truly enamored with the work Bielema’s done.

And besides, Bielema’s buyout doesn’t go down until January 2018. It’s still $15.4 million next December*. And in January it only goes down to $11.7 million. I don’t see Bielema leaving anytime soon unless it’s on his own. The buyout structure in his contract is ridiculously one-sided. You can see it here. He’d only owe UA $3 million if he left this year and it goes down each upcoming season.

*Under Bielema’s original contract, his buyout would only be $6.4 million next December. That’s a $9 million bump Jeff Long gave him for going 6-6 in 2014. Maybe that was too much.

This isn’t to ignore Bielema’s successes at Arkansas. The program is much healthier now than it was when he arrived. There have been great wins. There have been great players. The Ole Miss and Auburn games in 2015 and TCU game this year were among the most exciting games I remember. But so far, there haven’t been enough of them to balance out the bad losses.

It remains to be seen if Bielema can turn this around. Among the qualities of Bielema’s first teams here that’s gone missing is simply the fight. Throughout the end of the giant SEC losing streak in 2013 and ‘14, the team could’ve quit but they never did. It was the most impressive aspect of Bielema’s performance in those years. When the 2015 team started 2-4 with the disastrous loss to Toledo, they could have folded, but went 5-1 down the stretch. That element was missing this year. Too often when Arkansas got punched, they were knocked out instead of fighting back.

I hope the program ditches the #Uncommon slogan. The team mantra should be more action-oriented instead of something that, as Trent Wooldridge brilliantly noted simply “markets character” as opposed to actual on-the-field success. At one time Bielema referred to his linemen as “Big Nasties” (obviously a revered nickname among Arkansas fans for other reasons) and his team’s identity must return to that.

Bielema will have his opportunities for another 2014-style breakthrough, but it must come quickly.