The curious and complicated case of Bret Bielema in 2017
by Edward Aschoff
ESPN Staff Writer
At first, this was supposed to be about how 2017 was a make-or-break, must-win for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. But the more you actually think about it, it isn't that cut and dried.
Bielema is entering his fifth season with the Razorbacks after seven highly productive seasons as Wisconsin's head coach. He has no SEC West Division titles but also has just one losing season (his first, in 2013) and has won two bowl games in blowout fashion, by a combined 46 points.
Yet, he's won eight games only once (2015) and is coming off an insanely frustrating 2016 season that featured a 3-0 start, including a double-overtime win at No. 15 TCU, and concluded with embarrassing back-to-back losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech after leading by 17 and 24 points, respectively, at the half.
Promise has battled inconsistency throughout Bielema's 25-26 tenure at Arkansas.
But it's more complicated than just a win-loss record. To say that 2017 is a must-win season for Bielema seemed so easy until diving deeper and wading through the fan frustration. It seems almost too reactionary after you talk to people in the industry who have their fingers more firmly on the coaching pulse.
The charismatic Bielema isn't just some run-of-the-mill coach holding a call sheet in Fayetteville. He's a guy who led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls, then took a fading Arkansas program and made it relevant again with a completely different approach -- most notably his ability to turn a high-flying offense into a bullish run-first, run-often offense in his first two seasons.
He later properly adapted his rough-and-tumble offensive style to showcase more passing with the superb hire of Dan Enos in 2015, while still producing one of the SEC's top rushing offenses.
However, he's also watched his defenses slide into the ranks of the unwatchable, even with players he thought finally gave him adequate quality and depth in his front seven. Arkansas has allowed an average of 400-plus yards per game to SEC opponents over the past two seasons, including a staggering 482.9 yards and a league-worst 7.9 yards per play in league play. Arkansas was also last in the SEC in points allowed in SEC play (37.3) last season and 13th in 2015 (30.1).
It's mind-numbing to think about the potential this team has had, yet it's gotten sidetracked by the shortcomings.
Bielema is also sandwiched among Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Dan Mullen, Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze in the SEC West. Les Miles was there at one point, too. Bielema is in what has been arguably the country's toughest division during his tenure. Complicating matters is the fact that his immediate recruiting territory just isn't as succulent as the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
Consider: The state of Arkansas has produced 12 ESPN 300 players since Bielema was hired by the Razorbacks. The state of Florida had 49 in the 2017 class.
So the deck isn't exactly stacked in Bielema's favor. As one agent essentially told me this week, it's hard to even think about firing a guy like Bielema, who -- again -- has three winning seasons in the SEC West, with everything going on around him.
But you also have to consider all that stuff going on around him! That just can't be ignored. You can't ignore that Auburn has 10 more wins than Arkansas in the past four seasons and was seconds away from winning a national championship in 2013 with first-year coach Gus Malzahn. You can't ignore that in the past four years, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have both hit the 30-win mark and have been in the College Football Playoff conversation.
Texas A&M should have a better four-year resume, but Sumlin does have 33 wins in that time. Miles might be gone, but his resume is undeniable, and the Tigers even won six games without him, trampling Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the process.
While other schools in the West have risen and fallen in the polls, Arkansas has merely dipped its toe in under Bielema, getting no higher than 16th in the AP poll. Fans notice such things. They certainly noticed last year's two-game collapse to end the season and the fact that Bielema is 6-19 against Top 25 teams in four years. He's also just 10-22 in SEC play.
Two years before Bielema arrived, Arkansas won 11 games and got to No. 3 in the BCS rankings. Now the Hogs are yet again a mystery in the SEC. The pieces appear to still be there in some parts of the offense, but the receiving corps is being totally rebuilt. The defense is in new hands with Paul Rhoads taking over, but that front seven is still a major work in progress.
We don't know what to make of Arkansas. Frankly, we really don't know what to fully make of Bielema as we attempt to sift through the positives and negatives that have made up his Arkansas career. 2017 could be a bridge to truly finding out who he is as Arkansas' coach -- for better or for worse.
You can't overlook the good, but you can't overlook the bad. Unfortunately, you also can't overlook the complexities.
Until we see 12 more games from the Hogs, Arkansas and those peering in are left in limbo on how to properly characterize Bielema's tenure.