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What Rebuilding a Program Looks Like

It's not an easy process.

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I've begun the process of going through SEC football rosters and cataloguing the scholarship players on them by recruiting stars. It's a long process that isn't done, so I probably can't answer whatever your specific question is yet. It's also an inexact science involving comparing roster pages on school sites to the 247sports Composite's listing of who signed LOIs and then searching for walk ons who later got scholarships. Getting everything exactly correct is tough.

Even so, something jumped out at me while looking at Arkansas and Mississippi State. They're a pair of programs that do not and probably never will haul in tons of 4 and 5-star players like the conference's historical powers do. They're also under coaches who had to undertake rebuilding jobs, with those jobs being in different stages. Bret Bielema is only heading into his third year in Fayetteville, while Dan Mullen is entering his seventh in Starkville.

Mullen's rebuild was complete by last year, when his team spent several weeks ranked No. 1 in the polls. Bielema's is still going, with now being a first year where it's mostly his own recruits taking over. He lost nine of his best holdover players to the past two NFL Drafts, and well under half the team signed prior to his arrival.

Despite Mullen having established himself and his program for longer, Arkansas has more top talent by recruiting stars. MSU has one 5-star and 14 4-star players. The Hogs don't have a 5-star according to the 247sports Composite, but they do have 18 4-stars. In terms of the most highly rated guys, Bielema has already pulled ahead.

As best as I can tell, though, Arkansas has at least five guys on scholarship who did not register any stars in the 247sports Composite. It reflects well on those players that they were able to earn their meal tickets despite coming in as walk ons, and most coaches do award scholarships to walk ons from time to time to reward hard workers. Bielema himself was a walk on who earned a scholarship, so that process is meaningful to him.

Still though, Arkansas had room under the 85 scholarship to give at least five such players scholarships. I've also only been able to identify 79 scholarship players for 2015 so far using the spring roster and the list of signees from February. My list is still a work in process, but it's possible the Hogs both are a little down in numbers and still have a handful of former walk ons on scholarship. DB Kevin Richardson was a regular rotation guy as a reserve in the secondary and on special teams last year who will get more playing time this year. He is still a walk on, as best as I can tell.

Compare that to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have a much fuller roster. By my count, they actually have 88 players with at least a 3-star rating on their roster at present, which suggests to me that they might need to shed a couple players by the fall.

Arkansas will be fighting for position in the West with the likes of Mississippi State while doing so with possibly something in the neighborhood of 10 fewer players who were well regarded coming out of high school. You don't have to tell me that recruiting stars aren't the final word on these things, but in aggregate, they do a decent job of telling you where talent is.

The Razorbacks might be a better team than the Bulldogs next year. The Bulldogs are probably a deeper one, though. Arkansas's spring game showed a big gap between the 1s and 2s, and what I found regarding the roster situation would tend to confirm that. If the injury bug strikes, the Hogs will fade faster than the Bulldogs will.

If Arkansas doesn't take as large a step forward this year as it did from 2013-14, don't write it off as Bielema hitting some kind of ceiling. Mullen didn't hit one when his nine-win 2010 team fell to 7-6 in his third year. People focus so much on the successful, quick rebuilds at talent factories like Nick Saban's at Alabama or Gus Malzahn's at Auburn that it can be easy to lose sight of how they work for football's middle class.

I'm getting more optimistic about Arkansas's chances this fall the more I look at the team. Still, if the Hogs don't improve much (if at all) on their seven wins of a year ago, it won't really say much about Bielema's real long term prospects in Fayetteville.