2014 Arkansas Razorbacks preview:

Mountain climbers

Bielema says it might not happen this year, but his Hogs are on track to scale the daunting peak that is SEC West

By: Tom Murphy
Published: August 24, 2014 at 2:59 a.m. - Updated: August 24, 2014 at 2:59 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette SEC mountain illustration.
Photo by Dusty Higgins
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette SEC mountain illustration.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas is looking up at the rest of the SEC West.

The Razorbacks pulled up the rear of the seven-team SEC West last season, going 0-8 in the SEC, and the conference's media members have projected them to stay at the rear this season.

Conference history and Arkansas' long tradition says the Razorbacks will navigate back toward the top of the conference, but the big question is when? And can it happen with the plan second-year Coach Bret Bielema is implementing?

Bielema, who won three consecutive Big Ten titles before taking on the task of resurrecting an Arkansas football program, remains steadfast in his goal of leading the Hogs to their first SEC championship.

But the triple-whammy of Bobby Petrino's firing in April 2012, some lean recruiting years on Petrino's clock, and an unexpected nosedive in the interim year of John L. Smith, has made the job more difficult than most thought.

"I'm not saying when we're going to get to the top of the mountain," Bielema said of Arkansas, which is coming off a 3-9 season that ended with nine consecutive losses, "but we're going to get there."

Quarterback Brandon Allen, who redshirted in 2011 when the Razorbacks were ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings before the regular-season finale and finished at No. 8 in the BCS, said the players are eager to win again.

"We're ready to play to our potential and show to the state and the nation that we can be a great team," he said. "It's just up to us to prove it."

The first order of business is winning a game and ending a nine-game losing streak that dates back to a 28-24 loss to Rutgers last Sept. 21 and is the longest in the program's history. Defending SEC champion Auburn is heavily favored to stretch the Hogs' streak to 10 consecutive losses when the teams meet in the season opener Saturday at Auburn.

The Razorbacks will start the year with full reservoirs of enthusiasm and optimism under Bielema's positive outlook.

"Everybody loves a good underdog, and I think Arkansas is going to be a big surprise for everybody this season," defensive tackle DeMarcus Hodge said. "We're going to come out and we're going to shock the world."

ON THE REBOUND

Program insiders and league analysts agree that Bielema's plan should start Arkansas on a rebounding course after two difficult seasons.

"I think he has Arkansas pointed in the right direction," said George Schoeder, the national college football writer for USA Today and a native Arkansan. "It probably wasn't truly understood -- and maybe it's because no one wanted to recognize it -- just how damaging Bobby Petrino's crash was. The program crashed, too. Bielema needed to rebuild from the ground up."

Bielema is insistent that his method will eventually lead to the results he wants, and his message to the team hasn't changed.

"When tough times arrive, I think the message that you believe in needs to stay constant," he said. "Now you tweak and modify, there ain't no doubt about that. The things I believe in and the things I hold accountable to win haven't altered at all. They're in my mind more convincing now than ever."

Bielema has kept his plans for success circulating through his staff.

"Bret's a great leader," first-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. "He has an excellent vision of where the program is right now and where he wants it to be."

Bielema's building blocks start with having beefy, muscular and fit performers in the offensive and defensive lines and building out from there.

"We want to be a physical running football team," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "We want to hang our hat on dominating the line of scrimmage. We've been able to recruit some big kids in there to be able to do that, and hopefully that'll show up on game day.

"We want to have physical running backs. We want to be physical all around the field. We don't want to have a weak link, a flea out there that people can exploit because of physicality."

Bielema told Lars Anderson of SportsonEarth.com this summer that his plan is working.

"I knew last year was going to be tough because we brought in new philosophies," Bielema told Anderson. "But I have a proven formula for success. Man, the formula won three Big Ten titles. It's working here. It is. You'll see.

"People outside the program can't see it yet, but they will. There is zero doubt in my mind."

Arkansas wants to be among the nation's toughest teams, but it has company in that department in its own division, with Alabama and LSU possessing similar styles. Stocking up on prime defensive talent has been a chore for Arkansas during its time in the SEC West.

"Not only is the West the toughest division in college football, but it's also one of the most physical," said ESPN.com's Chris Low. "Bielema wants to play bully football, which is how he won at Wisconsin.

"You see some gains with offensive linemen like [Dan] Skipper and [Denver] Kirkland, but to make the biggest leap, the Hogs will need to add more difference-makers on defense. That's where Bielema will face his greatest challenge."

CHIP ON SHOULDER

The Razorbacks were competitive at the start of their eight-game SEC schedule last year, with a shootout loss to Texas A&M, and at the end, with narrow, heart-aching losses to Mississippi State and LSU.

Severe lashings were endured in between, notably consecutive losses to South Carolina and Alabama by a combined score of 104-7. Those losses were part of a five-game SEC stretch in which the Razorbacks lost by an average of 29 points per game.

SEC media members didn't forget that stretch when they voted Arkansas last in the West going into season.

"We definitely have a chip on our shoulder," senior tackle Brey Cook said. "The chip isn't necessarily to prove everyone wrong, but to prove us right. We know what we can do. We've seen it in the weight room and we've seen it on the field, and we're excited to go out there and put it on film."

Arkansas running backs coach Joel Thomas related a story from his playing days at Idaho to this year's Razorbacks.

"My last year ... we were picked dead last in the country," Thomas said of the 1998 season. "I think it was 116th at that time. We ended up going 9-3."

Idaho beat heavily favored Southern Miss 42-35 in the Humanitarian Bowl that year, the Vandals' third season in Division I-A.

"Any time you have experiences where people doubt you and you overcome it and show we're better than that, those are life lessons you have," Thomas said. "Those are things we share with the kids and try to show them. 'Hey, why not us.' "

DEFENSIVE RUT

The Razorbacks cycled way up in their final two years under Bobby Petrino, winning 21 games and playing in the Sugar and Cotton bowls in back-to-back seasons. But they were handled by the upper echelon of the SEC West both seasons, losing by 21 points at national champion Auburn in 2010 and falling by 24 points to Alabama and LSU, the teams who played for the BCS national championship, in 2011.

The last time Arkansas beat a team that won the SEC West came in 2007, when the Razorbacks knocked off No. 1 LSU, the eventual SEC champion and BCS champion, in triple overtime in Baton Rouge. Arkansas' last victory over an SEC division champion was its 41-20 road rout of South Carolina in 2010.

The Razorbacks put together some of the nation's most dynamic offenses for a three-year period under Petrino, but the program's defense has been in a rut for an extended period.

Smith showed up with a positive message and player-friendly aggressiveness as part of his plan to start a turnaround on that side of the ball.

"Our guys know they've got to improve," Smith said. "There's a sense of urgency to do that. I've been impressed with that. Each day out, we've just got to keep getting better. It's got to go on that uphill trajectory. Our guys realize that."

Senior linebacker Braylon Mitchell assessed the Hogs defense midway through camp.

"From now to game day we need to make a huge stride, because we're definitely not where we want to be," Mitchell said. "To compete in the SEC and get to where we want to be, we have to make huge strides."

BACK FROM THE BOTTOM

Arkansas had not gone winless in conference play in its first 21 seasons in the SEC and hadn't had a winless season in league play since an 0-6 run in the Southwest Conference in 1942 under George Cole.

The history for SEC teams coming off winless conference seasons has not been a pretty one until recently.

Thirteen of the 44 teams that went winless in SEC games since 1966 -- the year after Tulane dropped out of the league -- have gone on to repeat the 0-for in league play the following season. Thirteen of the 44 have managed to post winning overall records the following season, and dramatic rebounds to premier bowls have been rare.

If there is good news for the Razorbacks, the current climate in the SEC appears ripe for rapid turnarounds.

In 2008, former Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt took an Ole Miss team that had gone 0-8 in the conference under Ed Orgeron the previous year and led it to a 9-4 record, a second-place showing in the SEC West and a Cotton Bowl victory.

The best one-year turnaround occurred last season at Auburn. Fort Smith native Gus Malzahn led the Tigers to a 12-2 record, the SEC championship and a BCS championship game loss after Gene Chizik steered the 2012 team to an 0-8 league record.

The Razorbacks will get an early gauge on their improvement when they face Auburn in the season opener. Analysts see Arkansas as being improved this fall, but the Razorbacks are up against SEC West teams that are mostly on the rise or are deep enough to reload every season.

"It's easy to forecast a team that, though much improved, doesn't have much more to show for it in the standings," Schroeder said. "Long-term, Bielema's plan seems sound: Recruit hogs on the offensive line, then grind opponents.

"In the new-look SEC, that could almost become a change-up, something different for defenses to tackle. Short-term, finding a way to become bowl-eligible looks like a really big challenge."

Sports on 08/24/2014

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