Time for a Change
Jan. 2, 2017
by Chase Gage
FAYETTEVILLE, ARK — Bret Bielema is not the right coach for the University of Arkansas.
He is not fit to be a coach at the highest level of college football which is the SEC, particularly the SEC West. His defenders will say that he has either not had enough time or that the schedule the Hogs play is just too much to expect anything above mediocrity. Having Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Missouri on the schedule every year along with a foe from the East (this year it was Florida) is just too much to handle. Well, they must be forgetting that all those other teams play each other as well, and most of them end up having successful seasons. Bielema has been at Arkansas for four years and has yet to win more than seven regular season games. His overall record is 25-26, going just 10-22 in conference play.
When he was first hired as the head coach of the Razorbacks, his resume looked solid. He led Wisconsin to three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances, though he lost all three (note: he did not coach in the third Rose Bowl appearance, as he had already accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas). Still impressive, right? Well, when you look into it a little more, it does not look as great as it sounds. In his final season at Wisconsin, they finished third in their division of the Big 10, but thanks to Penn State (2nd place) and Ohio State (1st place) being ineligible for the postseason, Wisconsin went to the conference championship game and won.
Coach Bielema posted a 39-19 record in Big 10 games while at Wisconsin, which also looks great on paper. However, let’s dig a little deeper here. Against lesser teams such as Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana, he never lost, accounting for 19 of his 39 conference wins. He also posted a winning record against Michigan (3-2), Nebraska (2-1), Illinois (4-1), Iowa (3-2) and Northwestern (2-1). However, against the powerhouse teams of the Big 10 (Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State), he earned a record of 6-12. He went 3-4 against Michigan State, 2-3 against Penn State, and a measly 1-5 against Ohio State. At Wisconsin he could not win the big games, and the games he won were against competition that cannot be compared to even the lowest tier of teams in the SEC.
Since becoming the head coach at Arkansas, the Razorbacks have finished the regular season with the following records:
2013: 3-9, 0-8 SEC
2014: 6-6, 2-6 SEC
2015: 7-5, 5-3 SEC
2016: 7-5, 3-5 SEC
I will give him a pass for 2013 as the mess he inherited after the Bobby Petrino era ended was a big one. However, the next few years are not exempt from my judgment. 2014 was arguably his strongest season as the Arkansas head coach, thanks to a string of very close losses to good teams. An overtime loss to Texas A&M paired with a one-point loss to Alabama make for good excuses and optimism (“if we can get that close this year, just wait until next year!”). Later in the year, the Hogs lost on a last-second touchdown to then #1 Mississippi State on the road. After that, they reeled off back-to-back SEC shutouts, 30-0 over Ole Miss and 17-0 over LSU, both in Fayetteville. They finished the regular season off with a loss at Missouri before winning the Texas Bowl in a blowout over the Texas Longhorns, 31-7. The season was a disappointment, but it looked optimistic. In just his second year, the team showed a lot of promise and potential. But like my coach told me in high school, “potential” is a dangerous word.
On paper, 2015 was a much better season. The Razorbacks won five conference games but lost to non-conference opponents that they should not have. They started the year off 1-2 with home losses to Toledo and Texas Tech. Then, to open SEC play, they lost to Texas A&M yet again. The season looked bright again, however, after a road win over Tennessee, though the feeling did not last long as the Razorbacks then went on the road and lost at the hands of the Crimson Tide. After the bye week, the Hogs got hot. They won a 4OT game at home against Auburn, won a blowout non-conference game over a cupcake (UT Martin, no offense), and then won an overtime game against Ole Miss thanks to one of the craziest plays you will ever see on 4th and 25 and then a two-point conversion with the game on the line.The next week they even won the Golden Boot for the second year in a row with a 31-14 win on the road at LSU. Things were looking bright in Fayetteville. Then, the would-be game-winning field goal was blocked against Mississippi State leading to a 50-51 loss at home. The Hogs rebounded, though, with a win at home against Missouri and another bowl blowout against Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl, 45-23.
After two inconsistent seasons of winning games they should lose and losing games they should win, the Hogs looked at 2016 as a season that showed a lot of promise. In 2014 they started 4-5 and finished 3-1, and in 2015 they started 2-4 and finished 6-1. 2016 was supposed to be the year coach Bielema led the Hogs to a solid season and got rid of the inconsistency of the past. Looking back, that is pretty funny.
The 2016 season may have been the most inconsistent year in the history of the football program at the University of Arkansas. To kick off the season, the Hogs narrowly escaped Louisiana Tech, 21-20 thanks to a game-winning drive. The next week, the Hogs again narrowly escaped defeat, this time at the hands of TCU. They won the game in double-overtime 41-38 after surrendering 21 points in the fourth quarter when they were up 20-7. At this point, the inconsistencies did not look like much, but against Texas A&M, we found out who this team really was. Going into halftime, this game was tied 17-17. A&M was the 10th ranked team in the nation at this point and were early favorites to challenge Alabama for the SEC West crown. The Hogs fell flat in the second half as they were outscored 28-7 resulting in a final score of 45-24. After a 19-point loss to Alabama (that somehow felt like a moral victory of sorts after scoring 30 on the Alabama defense), the Hogs bounced back with a 34-30 win over Ole Miss (who did not reach a bowl game). Then, everything went downhill. Fast. The Hogs then got absolutely dominated by Auburn 56-3 in a game that even the most die-hard fans could not stand to watch. They rebounded again, however, with a start-to-finish domination of SEC East champion Florida. The Hogs then lost big at home to LSU and won in a shootout at Mississippi State (who finished 5-7). In their final regular season game, the Hogs were up big on the road at Missouri. At halftime the score was 24-7 and the Hogs had dominated every aspect of the game. The final score was 28-24 Missouri, as the Razorbacks again decided not to play in the second half.
After starting 3-0, the Hogs swapped wins and losses from week to week. By this logic, they should win their bowl game over Virginia Tech. They dominated the first half on offense, defense and special teams. They rode a 24-0 lead into halftime. However, they again decided that only the first half matters, as Virginia Tech stormed back and won the game 35-24. It was the only game this season in which a team took a 24-0 lead and lost.
When will the inconsistency end? In years past, coach Bielema would lose the first half of the season and then finish strong. This season, the Razorbacks may have won a few games, but for the most part, they did not even compete in SEC play. They finished the year at +87 points in the first half over opponents and -100 in the second half. That is unacceptable at any level of football.
It is obvious to me that Bielema is not the right coach for Arkansas, and never really was that great of a coach. He has yet to prove that he can produce a team that is capable of competing day-to-day in the SEC. Even a bad SEC team should look better than this. He has had four years which is more than enough time to figure things out at a new school. He has proven consistently (the only thing he has done consistently besides being sub-par) that he is not the right fit for Arkansas, the SEC West or even the SEC in general. He might not even be fit to be a Power 5 (Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, ACC, SEC) coach at all.
The longer he stays the head coach at Arkansas, the longer the Razorbacks will settle for being mediocre at best.