ARKANSAS FOOTBALL SEASON IN REVIEW:

Wrong direction: Hogs take U-turn into this offseason

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2017
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema speaks with an official following an inadvertent whistle in the second quarter against Virginia Tech during the Belk Bowl on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema speaks with an official following an inadvertent whistle in the second quarter against Virginia Tech during the Belk Bowl on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Bret Bielema and the Arkansas Razorbacks will experience a different tone this offseason.

The Razorbacks have gone through the past two winters on upswings after bowl victories and improvements in their overall record.

Not this time.

Bielema, with a four-year record of 25-26 at Arkansas, is a candidate for a spot on "hot seat" lists heading into 2017 after the Razorbacks lost their final two games to finish 7-6. His staff also seems destined for a shakeup.

Not only did Arkansas lose its last two games against Missouri and Virginia Tech, but the Hogs also blew hearty halftime leads in both games, which was reflective of a trend for the Razorbacks in 2016.

While the Razorbacks outscored opponents 257-170 in the first halves of its games, they were outscored 224-124 in the second halves.

"The second half has been our melting point," Bielema said after Arkansas blew a 24-0 halftime lead in its 35-24 loss to the No. 22 Hokies in the Belk Bowl last week. "A really good point of emphasis for us moving forward will be that."

Bielema has stressed the importance of finishing strong, but the Razorbacks fell short this season.

"Three years ago we began to understand what it meant to finish strong with what we did [against] Texas and what we did at the Memphis bowl a year ago, and this year was a huge emphasis on starting fast, which I think we did in the opening games and obviously the TCU game," Bielema said. "But we hit a bump in the road at several SEC games that we just weren't good enough to overcome."

Junior quarterback Austin Allen said after the loss to Virginia Tech that he thought the disappointment of the Belk Bowl and Arkansas' 3-3 record in the second half of the season would work in its favor.

"I wish that didn't happen, but it's a learning experience for me and my teammates," Allen said. "I think we'll become better by it, by our championing that adversity we've had to go through these last six games.

"I think this will make us better. I know it's tough to realize that right now. But I think we're just going to have it in the back of our minds all throughout offseason training and everything like that, so ... we'll be fine. We'll come out of it. We'll figure a way to make it all better."

The Razorbacks were in position to improve their overall record for a third consecutive year before the second-half disasters in their last two games.

Had Arkansas held on to win at Missouri and against Virginia Tech in Charlotte, N.C., it would have finished 9-4 and would have been in the dialogue for teams that could contend with Alabama atop the SEC West next season.

Instead, the Razorbacks will face loads of questions for the next eight months as they lose several seniors, particularly on defense and at wide receiver.

Arkansas will return six starters on offense: linemen Frank Ragnow, Brian Wallace, Johnny Gibson and Hjalte Froholdt; quarterback Austin Allen; and tailback Rawleigh Williams.

On defense, six players who started the Belk Bowl return: defensive lineman McTelvin Agim; linebacker Dre Greenlaw; and defensive backs Josh Liddell, De'Andre Coley, Henre Toliver and Ryan Pulley.

Arkansas was ranked No. 54 in the FBS in total offense with 428.4 yards per game Wednesday. The Razorbacks were No. 76 in total defense, allowing 426.6 yards per game. Arkansas was outscored 404-394 by its opponents.

Bielema said late in the season he didn't anticipate making staff changes. However, after making those remarks, he said other schools had contacted him to talk about assistants during the month of bowl preparation.

He also said the dominoes that affect coaching staffs around the country at the start of the new year could affect his staff. The annual American Football Coaches Association convention will take place Sunday through Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn., and that could trigger movement. Bielema has replaced three assistant coaches after each of his first three seasons with the Razorbacks.

Bielema said in Charlotte that the recruiting cycle would allow him to take a long week to conduct a self-examination of everything in the program, adding "that's all on my shoulders."

Even before the Belk Bowl, Bielema indicated he was ready to add new wrinkles to the team's winter workouts, without going into detail.

"There's some things I've already laid out and installed that we'll break to them when we get back that first week of school in January," he said.

Bielema also talked on the eve of the Belk Bowl about the solid footing he believes the program is on.

"I'm very excited about some foundation things that our team has, you know the GPA, the SEC academic honor roll and all that stuff I believe is a foundation of something that's really good that you can continue to build upon."

Bielema thinks the 2017 season will go a long way toward showing what he's done with the Razorbacks.

"I've always said year five, that next year's season is kind of the defining moment of what you've been doing and what you're trying to get to," he said.

Sports on 01/05/2017

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