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Bielema expects improvement after disastrous season
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema reads his notes during a practice Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014 at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Bret Bielema has experienced a new sense of excitement heading into his second season at Arkansas.
Simple things — increased intensity during practice and a renewed belief — have been a welcomed reboot for both the Razorbacks coach and an entire program in desperate need exactly that after bottoming out last season.
The 3-9 season, the first losing record of Bielema's head coaching career and Arkansas' worst mark since joining the Southeastern Conference, capped a disheartening two-year run for a program considered among the league's best just a few years ago.
It was also an eye-opening experience for Bielema, the former Wisconsin coach who promised to win the SEC when he was hired by the Razorbacks.
Setback or not, last season has done little to quell Bielema's belief in himself, his coaching staff and his players — despite being picked to finish last in the SEC West this season. And with a second recruiting class to back him, Bielema is ready to show marked improvement at Arkansas — a turnaround he expects to be just the start of what's yet to come.
"I'm not saying when we're going to get to the top of the mountain," Bielema said. "But I know we're going to get there."
For the Razorbacks to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2011, they must overcome the mental fatigue from a combined 7-17 record over the last two seasons.
Arkansas has experienced more than its fair share of turmoil since former coach Bobby Petrino's motorcycle accident in the spring of 2012, but it enters this season with something it hasn't had since Petrino's mishap.
Now it's up to the Razorbacks to show if that's enough to rebound from last season's winless march through the SEC, something they fully believe is possible.
"We have a quiet confidence," Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said. "Obviously, we have a lot of people that don't believe in us, don't believe in our team. We're out to prove them wrong, but out to prove them wrong on the field."
Five things to watch as Arkansas tries to end an 11-game SEC losing streak:
ALLEN'S REBOUND: Little could have gone worse for Allen last season in his first year as the starter for the Razorbacks. The Fayetteville native injured his throwing shoulder in the third game of the season, and Arkansas never won after that — with Allen completing only 49.6 percent of his passes while playing through the pain. Now a junior, Allen is fully healthy and continues to have the full support of Bielema as the starter. How he plays early could determine how long that support lasts.
SMITH'S IMPACT: The Razorbacks were 12th in the SEC last season in points allowed, giving up an average of 30.8 points per game. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith has been charged with improving that, and he's promised a more aggressive approach — particularly from Arkansas' maligned secondary. Smith has a track record of success, having led a Rutgers defense that was fourth in the country in points allowed (14.2) in 2012, but this could be the biggest challenge of his career.
PLAYMAKERS SOUGHT: Arkansas was last in the SEC in passing offense last season, gaining 148.5 yards per game through the air. While Allen's struggles were apparent, the Razorbacks receiving corps were as well after Demetrius Wilson missed the season with a preseason injury. Wilson is back and healthy for his senior year, and he and junior Keon Hatcher hope to provide plenty of support for sophomore All-SEC tight end Hunter Henry.
CENTER OF ATTENTION: Four-year starter Travis Swanson left for the NFL after last season, leaving a gaping lack of experience at center for the Razorbacks. Arkansas has built its offensive line into a strength under Bielema and offensive line coach Sam Pittman, but it could open the season at Auburn with freshman Frank Ragnow over the ball.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE: Speaking of Auburn, the Razorbacks waste no time facing one of the country's best this season — opening against the defending SEC champion Tigers on Aug. 30. The opener is the start of a difficult schedule that includes a non-conference game at Texas Tech and home contest against Northern Illinois.