Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
New Arkansas coach isn't interested in a 3-year plan
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema understands why the Razorbacks are picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC in his first season after going 4-8 last season, but he believes a turnaround can be accomplished quicker than most anticipate.
FAYETTEVILLE — History paints a bleak outlook, during the 21 years Arkansas has played in the SEC, for conference teams coming off four-victory seasons as the Razorbacks do heading into the fall under Coach Bret Bielema.
A total of 53 SEC teams posted four victories or less between 1992 and 2011. In the following seasons, 27 of them have made either one-game improvements, matched their victory total from the previous season or regressed with even worse records.
Only eight of those 53 teams have managed to improve their victory totals by five games or more.
One SEC program has managed to bounce back better and finish higher than all the rest.
The 1995 and 2006 Razorbacks are the only SEC teams since 1992 to rebound from a four-victory season or worse and then represent their division in the SEC Championship Game the following year. The 1995 Razorbacks are the only team in SEC history to go from worst to first in their division.
Arkansas’ 1998 team, which recovered from a 4-7 season to go 9-2 and tie for the SEC West title, makes the third, and last, program in that span to achieve at least a tie for the division championship after winning four or fewer games the previous year.
Bielema understood that a low projection was headed the Hogs’ way at SEC media days when he encouraged voters to go low, but he said he believes a strong senior class can help Arkansas get turned around rapidly.
“With all due respect, and I mean it, I didn’t come here to be great in three years,” Bielema said.
Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. was the starting quarterback for the 1995 Razorbacks and a graduate assistant for Houston Nutt on the 1998 team that came within a field goal against Mississippi State from winning the West outright.
“Sure it can be done,” Lunney said. “I think if you look at the history of the SEC West, how many times has the preseason favorite really emerged and been the winner? Probably not very many times.
“It definitely can be done.”
The formula for a big rebound includes having quality returning talent, especially in the trenches on both sides of the line, staying relatively healthy, a dash of good fortune in scheduling, players who believe in what they’re doing, a quality coaching staff and a certain attitude.
“I think it takes players who get tired of it,” Lunney said. “You know they experience that feeling of disappointment and hurt and loss and they use that as a motivation for the offseason going forward. I think that our guys carry a little of that with them.”
One season after being projected as a top-10 team by many college football analysts, the 2013 Razorbacks have been picked to finish last in the SEC West by the league’s media.
“The great thing is I think our kids know in their hearts and their minds and their souls that that’s not where we plan on finishing, and they’re going to do everything they can to change it,” Bielema told ESPN’s Chris Fowler.