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5 Predictions for the Next 5 Years of Arkansas Football

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What will the program look like in 5 years?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi State Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

I hate making predictions. Whether it’s picking games each week during the season or taking a stab at the upcoming season’s record, I’m never comfortable.

About five years ago, I’d just started writing for this site shortly after moving to Northwest Arkansas, and for my 30th birthday, I wrote a piece about being a Razorback fan through my life and how excited I was to be living so close to campus when the program was about to go through what I really believed would be some sort of golden era for the program. The football team had gone 21-5 over the last two years and was coming off a big Cotton Bowl win and was set to be highly ranked going into the next season. Mike Anderson just finished his first season, which included wins over Michigan, and ranked Mississippi State and Vanderbilt teams. Baseball and track were baseball and track. Things seemed great.

Literally just about 10 days later, Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle. The basketball program has only made the NCAA Tournament twice, failed to make the Sweet 16 and only produced a single NBA Draft pick. But baseball and track are basically still baseball and track.

Basically, I was very wrong. There’ve been a lot of great moments over the last five years, and running this site has given me the privilege to watch many of them up close, but it’s been far from a golden era.

That being said, the Powers That Be at SB Nation have asked all of our sites to make predictions on the next five years of our respective programs. You can probably go to many of the sites and find similar predictions there. Here’s my stab at some.

  1. The hype for the 2019 recruiting class will be insane. At lease one pay recruiting site already has a 2019 prospect board up and running. People have reason to be excited. There are several top prospects with ties to Arkansas. Here’s a quick rundown: Hudson Henry is Hunter’s younger brother and currently a composite 5-star tight end. Brian Williams is Rawleigh’s younger brother and currently a composite 5-star safety. Treylon Burks is the latest star receiver from Warren, AR - the same town Jarius Wright, Chris Gragg, and Greg Childs were from. He’s currently a composite 4-star ranked in the top 60 nationally. Grant Gunnell is a 4-star quarterback from Houston currently ranked the 55th overall prospect in the country. His grandfather played on Arkansas’ 1964 championship team and both of his parents graduated from Arkansas. If, IF, the Razorbacks are able to get all of their top prospects that year, we haven’t seen crazy hopes put on one recruiting class since the infamous 2006 debacle. Let’s hope this one won’t end up as a cautionary documentary.
  2. The Great Stadium Debate will finally die. It seems like it mostly has already as support for playing games in Little Rock seems to get smaller each year. It seems many War Memorial supporters have either changed their minds, resigned themselves to acceptance, or quit caring altogether. I’d be very surprised if Arkansas didn’t choose not to renew the agreement with War Memorial after the 2018 season, at which point pro-DWRRS fans can celebrate achieving their dream of hosting an extra game against the Florida A&Ms of the world each season. But there will be a new debate that shall rise...
  3. The hole in the stadium renovation will start a new debate. Arkansas’ current stadium renovation, which is slated to be completed prior to the 2018 season, includes a gap in the northeast corner. It’s a spot that currently allows people to see a good portion of the stadium by walking around outside of it. It’s one of the most photographed spots in Arkansas. They’ve chosen to keep the gap in the new renovation. On message boards, I’ve seen some fans hate it (“it looks like we couldn’t afford to finish the stadium”) and some love it because it looks distinctive. Personally, I like it, and I’m sure plenty will hate it. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if some future AD decides to fill it in, seeing it as an extra revenue source.
  4. The Missouri “rivalry” will still feel as lukewarm as it does today. Here’s the thing about these two fanbases: neither wants to admit its on the same level as the other. Both programs feel their primary goal is to raise the status of their programs to regularly compete for league championships. Because of this, by the time both teams get to Thanksgiving each year, the fear of losing will generally outweigh any sort of hatred and urge to destroy the other. And if the teams are having a bad year, fans are ready just to end the season by that point. I don’t ever foresee a “we can go 1-11 as long as we beat Missouri” feeling. I’d say fans, at least Arkansas fans, would rather beat any conference opponent other than maybe Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky before beating Missouri (personally, I’d really like to win another Southwest Classic).
  5. Wild guess: Bret Bielema will not be the coach in 5 years. Not because I think he isn’t doing a good job or anything like that. If Bielema is still the coach in 5 years, he’ll be preparing for his 10th season at Arkansas. That’s just a long time for any coach, especially one that isn’t winning at a high level. I haven’t seen anything in recruiting that leads me to think Arkansas will win the West in the near future, and while I don’t think Arkansas is necessarily doomed to an eternity of 7-ish win seasons, I have a hard time seeing Bielema lead Arkansas to a higher point than the Hogs have ever seen in the SEC. Particularly if he isn’t able to fix the second-half collapse trend (it’s not just the last couple of games, it’s been part of 2-3 games each year under Bielema), fans will continue growing restless and he’ll either leave on his own or eventually the buyout will drop.

I’ll say this, however. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bielema is still here in five years. He and Jeff Long appear to have a great relationship. He seems to like living here. If he can win enough to satisfy people, I think he could be here a long time. It’s just that few coaches stay anywhere for 10 years. Bielema himself had a good thing going at Wisconsin but left on his own after 7 seasons.

Bielema has done a fantastic job of rebuilding Arkansas out of the shambles the program was in when he arrived. He deserves a lot of credit for that. He’s not shy about pointing out how much better the program’s record has been over the last two seasons than it was the first two. That’s great, but the question now is how far can he take the program? It remains to be seen, but we’ll probably know within five years.