When Arkansas hired Bret Bielema, I thought it was a sneaky good hire for the program. Realistically, Arkansas is never going to bring in raw talent on the scale that Alabama and LSU do, but Bielema was a do-more-with-less kind of guy at Wisconsin. Bobby Petrino left a pretty big mess behind that a year of John L. only made worse, but I thought he'd do OK.
What ended up happening was a U-shaped season a year ago. A win over eventual Sun Belt champ UL-Lafayette in the first game proved to be the biggest highlight, with unimpressive wins over Samford and Southern Miss to follow. A road collapse at Rutgers then led into a disastrous start to the SEC slate. The Razorbacks weren't competitive in a 20-point loss to an already injury ravaged Florida, and they lost by a combined 104-7 to South Carolina and Alabama.
The team pulled out of the tailspin in progressive fashion: loss by 18 to Auburn, loss by 10 at Ole Miss, overtime loss to Mississippi State, and four-point loss at LSU. The team was doing much better by the end even if it didn't show up in the win column.
It's not going to get an easier this year thanks to the schedule. Last year's substandard Florida rotates off with Georgia coming on. The non-conference includes Texas Tech and Northern Illinois, both of whom will be better than any of last year's non-con teams. Some games the team is sure to lose—like Alabama and LSU—are home games, depriving the team of home field advantage for more evenly matched contests with Mississippi State and Missouri. Oh, and it all begins with a trip to defending conference champ Auburn.
Arkansas can be a better team and still repeat its 3-9 record from last year. I can actually see a regression in record to 2-10 without a significant regression in play. I don't think it will come to that, but let's just say I'm not forecasting a big second year pop in Fayetteville. Arkansas is going to be a unanimous pick to finish last in the West.
So, the biggest challenge facing Bielema is one that he might not be well suited for. He's going to need to keep the morale of his team and fans up as the program takes another series of lumps this year. Oratory isn't necessarily his strong suit, with his mouth (and typing fingers) getting him in trouble from time to time. Being loud and out there always works when you're winning, but it's not the best look when you're in the conference basement.
If the team starts 1-4 heading into the pre-Alabama bye week, something that is more than merely possible, can Bielema keep it together? Can he keep them going through two likely blowouts to Bama and Georgia before finally getting to a winnable game against UAB? He weathered the storm a year ago and got his guys to play hard late, but doing it again may be a tougher task. Losing wears on a program, and pushing through it gets harder over time.
Bielema may yet turn out to be the right guy for the long term, and Jeff Long is smart enough to understand the situation and give him time. The 2014 campaign will be another rough one though. Even if Long is on board with this thing, Bielema can't have his players quit on him or fans turn on him.
I'm not saying it's likely, because it's not, but there is still yet time for the Bielema experiment to explode in the hangar. I never would have thought it possible when the hire happened, but the window for it happening has cracked open. Bielema needs to figure out how to slam it back shut this fall.