Every time the question is about Arkansas’ record in Bret Bielema’s first year, my answer is a cop-out.
Consistently, the response has been “Six-six would be quite an accomplishment.” What that means is the Razorbacks could be five-seven or worse, a conclusion that I wanted in print before the publisher of Hawgs Illustrated asked for a prediction column for the magazine’s football preview issue.
Always efficient, he called early in the week to talk a little family and some golf before getting to the request.
The prospect of a losing season is not a knee-jerk reaction to being burned by the 2012 Razorbacks of interim coach John L. Smith. A year ago, a 9-3 prediction was accompanied by a declaration that quarterback Tyler Wilson and other playmakers were enough, no matter the coach.
In retrospect, the Razorbacks probably would have won two more with Bobby Petrino, but shortcomings at linebacker, defensive back, and the offensive line were very real. A year later, questions about those positions remain unanswered.
Almost as disappointing as Arkansas’ 4-8 record was the opponents’ margin of victory — 149 vs. four Southeastern Conference opponents. In that area, Bielema’s intolerance for penalties and turnovers will help. Arkansas, Colorado (1-11), and South Florida (3-9) tied for 118th in turnover margin last year.
Do not read that Bielema demands an inside running game and go into snooze mode. Although the offense will be run-first, the Razorbacks will throw 20 or more times every Saturday. Combined with a minimum of turnovers, running the ball effectively shortens a game and improves the chances of an outmanned team.
The philosophy is sound; the available talent is in question and coaching only goes so far.
Even picking a 3-0 start is done with trepidation, but Arkansas is supposed to be more talented than Louisiana-Lafayette and Samford and Southern Mississippi is starting over after the almost unheard move of canning its rookie head coach.
Before addressing games in doubt, know that I do not think Arkansas can beat Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, or LSU. If true, 7-5 is the maximum and 3-9 is possible.
The bottom line hinges on road games vs. Rutgers and Ole Miss and in-state games vs. Auburn and Mississippi State.
—Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova was superb last year in Fayetteville, completing 25 of 35 for 397, but Arkansas’ defense allowed some can’t-miss targets. In late-season losses to Pittsburgh and Louisville, he completed less than 49 percent. Nova’s 15-pound weight loss during the offseason supposedly has helped on several fronts. Wilson threw 39 times last year and the guess is that Arkansas will surprise Rutgers with its dedication to the run. ARKANSAS 21, RUTGERS 17.
—Auburn and Arkansas are in a similar situation, short-handed and rebuilding under first-year coaches. When they get together in early November, both might be winless in the SEC. Although not a believer in home field advantage, this is a vote for Fayetteville because I can’t find another reason to pick Arkansas. ARKANSAS 23, AUBURN 21.
—Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw for almost 3,000 yards last year when the Rebels surprised many by winning six and a bowl game. A second year with Hugh Freeze is a positive. Plus, the Rebels have a top-notch recruiting class that includes a highly touted running back. OLE MISS 28, ARKANSAS 17.
—Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell holds nine school passing records even though he has only started 17 games, but the schedule works against the Bulldogs. They play South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Alabama on consecutive weeks before traveling to Little Rock. Assuming UA players have not lost faith in Bielema, ARKANSAS 20, MISSISSIPPI STATE 17.
If this 6-6 prognostication is accurate, Bielema should be considered for SEC Coach of the Year.