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SEC 2015: Arkansas Enters Year Three of the Bret Bielema Era, and Three's Not a Charm

The Razorbacks will try to push back against a distinct pattern in the third season of any coaching regime, especially if they want more than a simple return to the postseason

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: Yes, I'm catching up to everyone else.

We tend to view rebuilding jobs as something of a straight line: A new coach comes in, gets his system set up, and then his team moves ever upward as the players learn their jobs and the new recruits come flowing in. Make tangible progress in your second season, and fans start to dream of even greater things in the third year.

Except, that's not usually how it works. In fact, coaches generally see a leveling out or even a drop in Year 3. If you look at the last coach at each SEC school to last at least three seasons, only four of them have compiled better records in their third season than in their second: Hugh Freeze, Les Miles, Bobby Petrino and Nick Saban. Only two of those -- Petrino and Saban -- increased their winning percentage by 100 points or more in the third year.

There are reasons for that. First, a coach that comes from outside a struggling program brings some new energy to a team and a fan base -- which matters -- and can look at a roster and players with a fresh set of eyes. Given an entire season to evaluate what's working and what isn't, he can often go into his second season with a clear roadmap of how to improve what he's already got. Those advantages start to diminish in season three, when he and his system are more settled and less able to make major changes.

The larger reason, though, might be recruiting. A coach's third season is when the members of the transitional recruiting class -- the one that falls in between the two coaching regimes -- become juniors. If the coaching change causes a lot of attrition on one end (players decommitting) and doesn't feature a pick-up on the other side (recruits coming to play for the new coach), then it's going to be a sparse class. And the team is going to head into the third season with fewer and less-heralded upperclassmen than it would usually have. Look at three of the four exceptions above: Miles, Saban and to a lesser extent Freeze all have solid track records as recruiters. It's not foolproof -- Kevin Sumlin's not on the list -- but it helps.

Whatever the reason, the third-year drop-off seems to be particularly acute for coaches who see a big improvement in the second season. Looking at the last coach at each SEC school to last at least three years, there are eight who saw their winning percentage jump by 100 points between their first year on the job and their second. Two of those managed to improve again in Year 3.


(Note: Numbers for Pinkel are for first three years in the SEC.)

In case you haven't figured this out by now, all of that is not a meaningless digression. Arkansas is heading into the third year of the Bret Bielema Era, and some analysts are already making noises about potentially pegging the Razorbacks to win the SEC West. But it might be time to tap the brakes on the Arkansas hype just a bit. Bielema's first class didn't exactly blow anybody's doors off, so even that loophole doesn't seem likely to apply to the Hogs this year.

On the other hand, it's not hard to see what people like about Arkansas. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins are back, along with four-fifths of the starting offensive line that helped them rush for nearly 2,300 yards (which ended up with said offensive lineman snagging the cover of the media guide). Slip in the returns of wideout Keon Hatcher and tight end Hunter Henry, and you have the potential for the best Arkansas offense since Bielema arrived in Fayetteville.

The defense, on the other hand, loses a bit. Five starters -- including Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight -- are all gone. That means all three players with double-digit tackles for loss have departed. Four of the top seven tacklers in 2014 aren't back in 2015. In the SEC East, that wouldn't be nearly enough to keep the Razorbacks from being at least one of the front-runners in the division. But in the West, without the kind of talent influx that Alabama, Auburn and LSU get nearly every year, it's probably too much to overcome.

The perfect season: The offense is just as good as advertised, and the defense somehow gels over the first three or four weeks. Arkansas gets a win at Rocky Top and then picks off Auburn at home after the Hogs' bye. That sets them up for a chance to make a run at the SEC West title if Alabama manages to slip up twice (or once in a three-way tie), with the annual game for the Golden Boot ending up as the de facto division championship game. With the West turning into a demolition derby, Arkansas manages to wrangle the ticket to Atlanta for the first time since 2006.

The nightmare: Brandon Allen's passing numbers -- not exactly the stuff of legends to begin with (2014 efficiency: 129.19) -- unexpectedly take a turn for the worse. That allows teams to focus even more on Williams and Collins, who still get decent yardage but aren't able to be quite as effective. The defense crumbles, especially against the more dynamic offenses on the schedule, leading to one or two losses in games where the Hogs should be favored. Arkansas wins just one conference game -- perhaps against Mississippi State or Texas A&M -- or wins two while dropping the Texas Tech game, leaving the Razorbacks at home for the postseason for the third time in four years.

What actually happens: There's a good deal of difference between saying that Arkansas won't improve dramatically and saying that the bottom is going to fall out. Allen doesn't have to be an All-SEC quarterback to make sure that Williams and Collins can run, especially with that offensive line; he simply needs to avoid making back-breaking mistakes, and a 20-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2014 suggests he can do just that. The Razorbacks will buck the trend, but only by a bit; they might not be going to Atlanta in December this year, but they'll be playing a game somewhere after the regular season ends.