NCF Nation: Bret Bielema
It's humbling for a fan base to see a coach voluntarily leave its program. It's especially humbling to see it happen twice in the past three years. It's especially, especially humbling when coaches leave a winning, established program that is coming off appearances in the Big Ten championship game.
Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen clearly didn't see Wisconsin as a destination job. Bielema wanted to chase a championship in the nation's toughest conference at a program flush with resources. Andersen became fed up with Wisconsin's admissions office and the difficulty of getting his targeted players into school. Their eyes wandered and they left town.
Chryst is coming home to Madison, where he spent most of his childhood, his college years and part of his adult life as a Badgers assistant in 2002 and again from 2005-11. He intends to stay for a while. Those close to him say Wisconsin is his dream college job and that he would only leave to lead an NFL team. Coincidentally, Chryst did the reverse Gary Andersen, leaving Oregon State's offensive coordinator post for Wisconsin's after the 2004 season.
Let's not be delusional about the Big Ten or modern-day coaches. The days of Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Barry Alvarez, Hayden Fry, Joe Paterno and others who saw Big Ten programs as career endpoints likely are over. Kirk Ferentz is completing his 16th season at Iowa, while Pat Fitzgerald just finished his ninth at Northwestern and Mark Dantonio wraps up his eighth at Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. None seems to be in a hurry to leave on their own accord, but they're more the exceptions in today's game.
Expecting any coach to spend 15-20 years in one place isn't realistic. But the Big Ten also can't have coaches voluntarily leaving every season. A Big Ten coach has chosen to depart in each of the past three seasons: Bielema (2012), Penn State's Bill O'Brien (2013) and now Andersen. Of the three, only O'Brien left for a definitive step up, the NFL's Houston Texans.
Look at Big Ten basketball, which boasts elite coaches -- Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, Ohio State's Thad Matta and Michigan's John Beilein -- who view their jobs as destinations. That's what Big Ten football needs.
Chryst puts a stop in the revolving door at Wisconsin, and several of the Big Ten's top programs could be entering a period of coaching stability:
Nebraska: Whether Cornhuskers fans like the Mike Riley hire or not, Riley isn't going anywhere. He sees Nebraska as a last stop, and despite his age (61), he still has great energy for the job. His predecessor, Bo Pelini, didn't voluntarily leave Nebraska, but there were incessant rumors during his tenure about him looking at other jobs. Some think if Nebraska had won the 2012 Big Ten title game instead of Wisconsin, Pelini would have landed at Arkansas instead of Bielema.
Ohio State: Urban Meyer quickly has rebuilt Ohio State into a national power and a playoff contender for years to come. There's always some concern about Meyer's longevity at a job, but he's not mentioned for NFL positions and seems completely settled in Columbus. He might not coach the Buckeyes for 10-15 years, but he's seemingly not on the verge of an exit, either.
Penn State: Amid the excitement of his arrival, James Franklin repeatedly noted that Penn State had work to do with its roster deficiencies, which showed up throughout the fall. Franklin likely will see this process through, and, like Meyer in Ohio, he has roots in Pennsylvania. He has plenty of job security, and unless he becomes frustrated with the post-sanctions effects, won't be looking to leave.
Michigan is the wild card here, but the Wolverines should be seeking some stability in its next coach. After having just three coaches between 1969 and 2007, Michigan will have its third in eight seasons next fall. Jim Harbaugh is the home run hire for the Wolverines, but not if he returns to the NFL in two or three years. Michigan needs an elite coach who wants to stick around, and it shouldn't compromise either criteria. Brady Hoke would have stayed in Ann Arbor forever, but he wasn't getting it done on the field.
Stability doesn't automatically equal success. After a very disappointing regular season, Iowa's Ferentz finds himself in a category of long-tenured, mostly successful coaches -- Georgia's Mark Richt, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy -- who some want to see move on. Stability can become stale, but cycling through coaches every few years almost guarantees struggle.
Amazingly, Wisconsin has avoided a downturn despite its coaching turnover. Now it has a coach who can keep things rolling without constantly looking for the next best thing.
Michigan's impending hire should calm the Big Ten coaching carousel for a while. And with relative stability at the top programs, the league could be on the verge of a step forward.
The embarrassment on the field was surely enough, but it's yet another blow-off that has Wisconsin reeling.
Losing 59-0 in the Big Ten title game is one thing. That was a short-term setback, and it didn't change the fact that Gary Andersen had just won the West Division and was starting to load up his roster with talented, athletic players who could continue to make his program an annual contender.
Losing another coach to what the Badgers would almost certainly view as a less-prestigious program is the bigger shot to the ego, though, and it will be the cause of some seriously difficult looks in the mirror for Barry Alvarez and his athletic department. This might well be another hurdle that can be cleared in a small time frame, but it suggests there might be more long-term issues for Wisconsin if it can't keep its successful coaches around in a conference that appears to be back on the upswing.
"The last two coaches have proven that," Alvarez said. "It wasn’t a destination job for them, but it was for me and it is for [basketball coach] Bo Ryan. Everybody is a little bit different. I don’t worry about that.
"We’ve got a good job, we’ve got a good place, we’ve got a consistent program. We’ve got a lot to sell. I’m not trying to paint any other picture other than a very positive picture, because it is positive."
The list of pros is indeed long for anybody who would like to come take over for Andersen, and Alvarez was expecting a long night on Wednesday with his "phone ringing off the hook" with candidates interested in leading a program that has played in five consecutive New Year's Day bowls. There are upgraded facilities on hand, including a new weight room and an academic center. And the path to the College Football Playoff currently isn't the most arduous around, though winning the Big Ten West isn't exactly a cakewalk with Nebraska, Minnesota and occasionally Iowa on hand in a division that can hand out a few bruises.
But there are certainly cons that come with the Wisconsin job, from a shallower recruiting pool in its backyard to high academic standards that can potentially trim its options to fill out the roster. But those didn't stop Andersen or Bielema from winning games, competing for championships or heading to prestigious postseason bowls. The issues in retaining those two coaches appear to be things Wisconsin actually has some control over and could change.
Is there really no room for flexibility in terms of getting in a few more recruits who might not have traditionally qualified? There's nothing wrong with a program rigorously holding itself to tough academic standards, but that makes it tougher to put together the best possible team and to possibly keep coaches who could more easily craft a squad in their image elsewhere.
Why doesn't Wisconsin have an assistant ranked higher than No. 77 in the nation in annual salary, according to the most recent USA Today database? There's no cap on spending for coaches, which makes it the one commodity in which schools with title aspirations should never get thrifty.
The possible academic hurdle can't be cleared with a checkbook, but certainly the other problem can be addressed simply by spending more money, and no school in the Big Ten can make any sort of legitimate claim that it doesn't have cash rolling in, thanks to its television contracts. With Wisconsin's passionate fan base filling Camp Randall Stadium, it's also unlikely that its revenue stream is going to dry up any time soon.
With Andersen, though, dollar signs probably weren't the tipping point; Oregon State actually checked in one spot behind Wisconsin nationally at No. 41 in payroll for assistants.
So what else is there? Perhaps the problem is with the boss, with Alvarez looming over a program he led for so many years. Given that he was able to win at a high level despite some of those limitations, might he or the athletic department be unwilling to make concessions that the game has truly changed since Alvarez was on the sideline? That question might be more difficult to answer and even more challenging to fix, given Alvarez's iconic stature with Wisconsin.
Either way, Alvarez is the guy looking for a new coach again. He joked that it would be the last time he would hire a football coach, but then he obviously wasn't ever anticipating the need to do make one after just two seasons with Andersen.
"I’m a big boy," he said. "I understand this business; just take a look around the country. People move for different reasons. That’s why I’m always prepared; that’s why I have a short list. I feel very confident we’ll put a good coach in place, and I promised the kids that. ... I know one thing, I won’t flinch.
"Our program will not take a step backward. We will replace Coach Andersen with another excellent coach and staff."
The trick this time is to make sure there's absolutely no reason to leave.
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I'm talking about little ol' Arkansas vs. Missouri, a game with all brash and no flash. Playoff implications? Eh, maybe, but it really is a long shot if the Tigers win Friday and then top the West Division champion in Atlanta.
But right now, who cares about that? This is the game no one was talking about in August and hardly registered on anyone's radar as recently as Halloween.
In a season that has been so much fun to watch -- even through some of the bad play -- and so nail-biting, this game shows you just how little we really knew about this conference during fall camp and how competitive the SEC has been from top to bottom.
With the schedule Arkansas had, it was hard seeing the Razorbacks make a bowl game. Sure, this team was better mentally and physically, but no way Arkansas was making it through the SEC West gauntlet with a bowl berth. There were just too many questions across the board, and those running backs couldn't do it all.
And while we could see the pieces slowly falling into place for the Hogs, the wins just weren't coming. Somehow, Bret Bielema kept his guys going. It would have been so easy for the Hogs to get down on themselves and just embrace that snake-bitten mentality, the goal-line stands and the turnovers in the end zone.
Instead, this team has become the SEC's most dangerous squad heading into the final week of the regular season. Arkansas turned things around and became bowl eligible with a 17-0 win over LSU and then a 30-0 beatdown of Ole Miss. Both teams were ranked, and both left Fayetteville absolutely stunned. It's not like those were bad teams. Were they at 100 percent? No. But they weren't overrated or undeserving of their place in the polls.
They were beaten by a team getting better and better, a team that now has a chance to send another squad into a disappointing funk. The Hogs have nothing to lose Friday in Columbia, Missouri. The goal of making a bowl game has been accomplished, so there's no pressure. This team should be loose, carefree and ready to roll.
But the team lining up on the other side has been quietly rolling to its own methodical tune the last five games. After getting thrashed 34-0 at home to Georgia, Missouri has won five straight by grinding games out thanks to a fantastic coaching job by Gary Pinkel. He has rallied a team that lost to Indiana, for crying out loud!
Last season, we admired the Tigers' explosive offense and dominating defense. This year, we're just wondering how the cardiac cats continue to win. The offense isn't exciting, but that defense has been spectacular in conference play. Missouri's games can weigh heavy on your eyelids, but winning ugly is still winning, folks.
Missouri is 9-2 in its third season in the SEC. Last year, the new kids on the block tortured SEC traditionalists with their trip to Atlanta. Now, they've broken them with the potential of back-to-back trips. The majority of SEC followers looked down on Mizzou when it first arrived. Well, now the Tigers are looking down on the rest of the league and smirking with an emphatic Hi, hater!
Someone's magic will die out Friday, but to see these two teams actually be in this position is fascinating. Relatively little star power has propelled both squads into what's turned into a huge game for the SEC.
This game doesn't have the vitriol or popularity of the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl, but this season it deserves the respect.
We saw the state of Mississippi take over the state of Alabama in one weekend. We saw the rise of Bulldogs and the fall of Gators. The West was wild and the East was,well, there.
There's SEC bias everywhere and still a chance for two SEC teams to make it into the inaugural College Football Playoff.
The SEC had two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, who both still have at least another weekend to impress everyone.
The league started the season with seven teams ranked in the AP Poll. Six are ranked in the AP Poll now, and Alabama and Mississippi State are ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff Rankings. Both are also still in the running for the SEC West title.
From top to bottom, this league has been way more competitive than usual. Just think about this for a second: The West will be decided by the Iron Bowl and the Egg Bowl. The Iron Bowl made plenty of sense at the beginning of the year because you had the defending SEC champs in Auburn returning just about everyone, while Alabama was Alabama.
But the Egg Bowl? Mississippi State and Ole Miss? Sure, these two teams had the personnel to compete in the West, but to have the Egg Bowl actually mean something when you think of Atlanta is great for the league. Both serious playoff aspirations, and now Ole Miss is set up to play major spoiler for the Bulldogs.
Arkansas is relevant again. Bret Bielema's Hogs are rejuvenated and dangerous. After losing 17 straight SEC games, Arkansas has now won two straight by a combined 47-0. Those wins came against LSU and Ole Miss, both ranked. And Ole Miss was still in line for a spot in Atlanta and maybe a trip to the playoff, but the Hogs saw to it that Ole Miss' special run ended in a 30-0 romp.
Texas A&M fooled us with that commanding opening victory, but then it suffered three straight SEC losses before beating Auburn, who at the time was playing like one of the nation's best teams. LSU has a slew of young talent and beat Ole Miss before taking Alabama to overtime. Just wait until next year ...
The East hasn't exactly wowed anyone all year, but with things so even, the race to Atlanta has been a fun one to follow. Georgia -- clearly the most talented team on that side of the division -- might not even make it to the title game because of losses to South Carolina and Florida, who have combined to lose nine SEC games. Those pesky Missouri Tigers are now a win away from back-to-back Atlanta trips. The team that barely had an offensive pulse for most of the SEC season just doesn't know how to lose anymore. Remember when it was embarrassed by a bad Indiana team at home and then got trounced 34-0 at home to Georgia? Well, Missouri is 5-0 since.
Mizzou isn't as good as it was last year, but that doesn't matter one bit. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, allowing just 302.6 yards and 19.9 points per game in seven league games. With the defense being so good, Maty Mauk's inconsistent play at quarterback gets considerably overshadowed. The defense turned it up 10 notches, thanks in large part by ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who have combined for 22 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss.
Mizzou ain't pretty, but it's winning. Deal with it.
South Carolina was supposed to win the East, but owns the division's worst defense and loved blowing fourth-quarter leads. Then, the Gamecocks somehow beat a slightly surging Florida team in comeback fashion that cost Will Muschamp his job.
Kentucky's offense had bite during a 5-1 start, but after five straight losses, it's pumpkin time for the Wildcats. Tennessee has been so up-and-down, but the emergence of quarterback Joshua Dobbs at least makes the offense watchable. Florida had a rain out, a couple of bad blowouts, two quarterbacks, nearly three overtime games, plenty of heartache and blew out Georgia.
The SEC has been a blast. It hasn't always been great, and there's no dominant team, but there's been plenty of fun drama along the way ... and two weekends still remain.
- If you thought Arkansas was improving ...: Just wait until next season with the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's team went from one of the nation's most snake-bitten teams to topping LSU and Ole Miss -- both ranked at the time -- by a combined score of 47-0 in back-to-back weeks, including today's 30-0 win over the Rebels. This team isn't flashy, by any means, but that tough, beat-you-down effort is getting better and better for the Hogs. They'll be even better next season, with nine potential starters coming back on offense, including running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. The defense will lose seniors Trey Flowers and Tevin Mitchel, but that younger group of defenders has grown up as the season has gone on and played out of its mind when its back was against its own end zone. That's a great way to tell how much a defense has matured. Bo Wallace helped it out, but forcing two turnovers in the end zone was crucial Saturday. Arkansas' quarterback situation has to improve, but this team is going to have a ton of momentum going into next season, as it is headed to a bowl game this season.
- Florida's football team is still playing for Muschamp: Yes, it was only Eastern Kentucky, but it was a perfect opportunity for a Florida team led by a lame duck head coach to simply go through the motions. But the Gators were all business and pounded the Colonels 52-3 on Senior Day in Will Muschamp's final game in the Swamp as Florida's head coach. It was a feel-good win for a program that is now bowl-eligible and will be under new management next season. The Gators rolled up 430 yards of offense and watched embattled quarterback Jeff Driskel throw for 164 yards and three touchdowns in relief of an injured Treon Harris. The playbook opened up when Driskel got in, and the Gators watched receivers Demarcus Robinson and Quinton Dunbar combine for seven catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns. This team might not beat Florida State next week, but it won't lie down with its coach out the door.
- Bo Wallace needs Laquon Treadwell: With his safety net done for the season, Ole Miss' quarterback just doesn't have enough help right now. Yes, Wallace made some bad decisions in the 30-0 loss to Arkansas, but with no consistent running game to rely on, Ole Miss' offense couldn't get anything going without a game-changer at wide receiver. Wallace forced throws at critical moments, but some of that had to do with his not having Treadwell to go to when things got hairy. Wallace threw for 235 yards, but when the Rebels' offense needed a clutch play from its quarterback, he couldn't deliver. Treadwell had always been there to provide the big play, but without him, the Rebels don't have a major playmaker to keep drives alive. It's obvious the lack of a power running game is keeping this offense from evolving with Treadwell out. You better believe Mississippi State will have no problem dialing up the pressure as much as possible next week against Ole Miss.
- Alabama and Mississippi take center stage: The final weekend of the regular season will bring all SEC eyes on the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama and Mississippi State cruised on Saturday, which means the SEC West champion will officially be decided next weekend. Alabama hosts Auburn, while Mississippi State travels to Ole Miss. The Bulldogs play earlier in the day, so they will be on pins and needles on their way back to Starkville while awaiting the outcome in Tuscaloosa. For the Bulldogs to make it to Atlanta, they need a win and an Alabama loss. Alabama just needs to win. But there's more to next weekend than just the SEC West. If both Alabama and Mississippi State win, the playoff argument for Mississippi State will increase. The Bulldogs' lone loss would be to the No. 1 team in the country, so it's going to be tough to keep the Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoff, regardless of what happens in Atlanta. If Alabama and Mississippi State head into the final day of the College Football Playoff rankings with one loss, could we see two SEC teams in the playoff?
- Missouri is one win from an improbable East championship ... again: Here the Missouri Tigers are, inconsistent offense and all. But you know what? It doesn't matter. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, and though the offense is light-years behind last year's, this team can grind out wins. It is mentally tough and find ways to make plays at clutch times. You might not like how Missouri wins, but the Tigers have taken care of business after embarrassing home losses to Indiana and Georgia. Going undefeated on the road helps tremendously. With the 29-21 win over Tennessee, the Tigers head home to play a red-hot Arkansas team. With a win, Missouri, which is in its third year in the SEC, will be back in the SEC title game in Atlanta. Hats off to coach Gary Pinkel, who has done a tremendous job this season. How do you think those Georgia players, coaches and fans feel? You beat Mizzou by 34 on the road, but because of your loss to South Carolina, the fate of your SEC East hopes rest on Arkansas when at Mizzou. That has to hurt.
A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline cost $3.82 when Arkansas last won an SEC game, beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012. "Gone Girl" and the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series dominated the best-seller lists, two years before they became highly anticipated movies.
Here are some notable ways the SEC changed during the 763 days that Arkansas went between conference victories:
Manziel becomes a phenomenon: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel had played in just three SEC games when Arkansas last won a conference game. By now we know he went on to win that season's Heisman Trophy as a freshman and was a first-round NFL draft pick in 2014, but the legend of Johnny Football was only starting to build at that point.
Two weeks before Arkansas' 2012 win against Kentucky, Manziel had set a Texas A&M record with 453 passing yards and three touchdown passes, plus 104 rushing yards and another score, in a 58-10 win against the Razorbacks.
Coaching changes aplenty: John L. Smith was Arkansas' coach when the streak started, and his departure after the 2012 season was only one in a handful of coaching changes that have occurred around the conference.
Arkansas (from Smith to Bielema), Auburn (from Gene Chizik to Gus Malzahn), Kentucky (from Joker Phillips to Mark Stoops), Tennessee (from Derek Dooley to Butch Jones) and Vanderbilt (from James Franklin to Derek Mason) have all changed head coaches since October 2012. Now Florida is on the verge of making it six schools to change coaches since then, following Sunday's announcement that Will Muschamp will not return in 2015.
Conference keeps rolling: The SEC would extend its string of consecutive BCS titles to seven when Alabama closed the 2012 season with a championship-game rout of Notre Dame. And Auburn nearly made it eight last season, although the Tigers allowed Florida State's Jameis Winston to lead a last-minute touchdown drive that gave the Seminoles the final title of the BCS era.
Nonetheless, the SEC's run as the preeminent conference in college football continued throughout the time that Arkansas failed to win a league game.
The conference went 13-6 in bowl games between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, easily the best winning percentage among major conferences, and placed seven teams in the final Associated Press Top 25 after both seasons.
The SEC also dominated the NFL draft, with 63 players picked in the 2013 draft -- more than double the number from any other conference -- and 49 more getting selected earlier this year. That includes this year's No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney from South Carolina and 10 other first-round picks from SEC schools.
Nick Saban's Alabama remained the league's toughest program throughout Arkansas' slide. Not only did it win the 2012 BCS title, but it posted a 16-3 mark in SEC play during the same period that Arkansas was 0-17.
Auburn's fall and rise: Auburn was en route to arguably the worst season in school history on Oct. 13, 2012, having lost 24-7 to Arkansas a week earlier. The Tigers would go 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play only two seasons after winning the BCS title and Chizik would be dismissed after the season.
Auburn would replace Chizik with his former offensive coordinator, Malzahn, who rose to fame as a high school coach in Arkansas and who spent the 2006 season as the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator. Malzahn led one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history last season, pushing Auburn to an SEC title and a spot against Florida State in the BCS championship game.
Hogs finally break through: Arkansas certainly dealt with its share of uncertainty in Bielema's first season on campus, closing 2013 with a school-record nine-game losing streak that included some unsightly blowouts. However, the Razorbacks closed the 2013 season with a pair of close losses and regularly hung with their toughest conference opponents this fall.
The outcomes were all the same, of course, as loss after loss piled up even when the Hogs would fall by only one point against Alabama or by a touchdown against then-No. 1 Mississippi State. But Arkansas' results finally changed last Saturday when their defense dominated LSU and the offense did just enough to claim ownership of the "Golden Boot" trophy that goes to the winner of the annual LSU-Arkansas game.
Many college football analysts had insisted throughout the season that an improved Arkansas was on the verge of breaking through under Bielema, and Saturday's LSU win was the confirmation the Razorbacks' coach needed. Now he has the chance to launch his first SEC winning streak as the Hogs' coach when No. 10 Ole Miss visits Fayetteville on Saturday.
Here are five things we learned after the conclusion of Saturday’s games:
It tolls for thee, Muschamp: Maybe there was a way for Will Muschamp to save his job after Florida shocked Georgia a couple weeks ago. But the way the Gators blew a late lead and fell 23-20 in overtime against South Carolina on Saturday -- getting two kicks blocked in the last 3:30 -- probably removed any doubt. The Gators are now 5-4 and can become bowl eligible with a win against Eastern Kentucky next week, but this has to be the end for Muschamp. The Gators should have won this game but imploded at home in the closing minutes.
A breakthrough for Arkansas: It was a long time coming, but Bret Bielema finally got the first league win of his Arkansas tenure when the Razorbacks shut out LSU 17-0 on Saturday. Oddly enough, the win ended a 17-game SEC losing streak. The Hogs came close against several teams this season -- most notably Alabama and Mississippi State -- but they controlled the night against LSU. They even handed the Tigers their first shutout loss since they fell 21-0 to Alabama in the BCS title game to end the 2011 season. Clearly, it meant something to the Razorbacks’ fans, though. They rushed the field to celebrate the win.
Gus Bus hits a speed bump: Saturday’s loss was by far the worst for No. 9 Auburn since Gus Malzahn became head coach last season. The Tigers scored seven points in a loss to Georgia -- well below their previous scoring low (20 points in a win against Kansas State earlier this season) under Malzahn. Auburn came in averaging 506.9 yards and 38.7 points per game and mustered just 292 yards and seven points against a UGA defense that got dominated by lowly Florida two weeks ago. The Tigers also lost for the second straight week and fell out of the SEC West and playoff conversations.
Look out for the Vols: They lost their first four games in SEC play, but here come the Tennessee Volunteers (5-5, 2-4). With quarterback Josh Dobbs leading the charge, the Vols blasted Kentucky 50-16 on Saturday after beating South Carolina in overtime two weeks ago. Dobbs passed for 297 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday and ran for 48 yards and another score. They’ll host Missouri on Saturday with a chance to spoil the Tigers’ hopes of winning the SEC East.
Dan Mullen knew Bret Bielema’s pain. Every week had been a struggle. Every conference game had been a grind. The chips had fallen the right way for Mullen’s Mississippi State squad, but he knew the margin between their No. 1 ranking and Bielema’s .500 record at Arkansas was razor-thin.
“Both of us were just amazed at how strong our league is,” Bielema said.
By taking No. 1 Mississippi State down to the wire, the Razorbacks once again served as Exhibit A in the never-ending argument for and against the existence of SEC bias.
Either Arkansas is that good or the SEC is only average. It can’t be both. Bielema’s squad either proves the league’s incredible strength top to bottom or it shows that the top just isn’t as good as some believe.
How else could No. 3 Auburn be tied at halftime with a team that hadn’t won an SEC game in two years?
How else could No. 6 Alabama trail a team in the fourth quarter that it had beaten 52-0 in each of the previous two seasons?
How else could No. 1 Mississippi State need a fourth-and-two stop and a red-zone interception to survive a .500 team at home?
Either Arkansas is a wolf in sheep's clothing or those teams don't deserve their high rankings.
The big question on both sides of the argument is how the College Football Playoff selection committee views the Razorbacks. And judging by the first round of rankings, there’s a ton of respect for Bielema’s squad and the SEC West in general.
If you think Auburn is overrated, what does it say about No. 9 Kansas State? If you believe Alabama’s top-10 ranking isn’t justified, then how about No. 20 West Virginia? Don’t think Mississippi State should be No. 1? Then how do you explain its three wins over top-10 teams, including Auburn?
If you think Arkansas isn’t underrated, consider this: The Razorbacks are ranked No. 20 in ESPN’s Football Power Index, which measures a team’s strength and predicts its performance moving forward based on results to date and remaining opponents. That comes despite a remaining strength of schedule that ranks third nationally. At 4-5, Arkansas is the only sub-.500 team in the top 30 of the FPI.
If statistics don’t interest you then look at Arkansas’ roster, which is better than you might expect. Though the Razorbacks don’t have a game-changer at QB, they have one of the best tandem of running backs in the country in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Their offensive line is massive. Hunter Henry might be the SEC’s best tight end, and Trey Flowers has to be one of the most unheralded defensive ends in all of college football.
Every coach who has gone up against Arkansas has walked away saying the same thing: Those guys are going to beat somebody soon and we’re glad it wasn’t us.
“At this point it’s almost numbing to be so close and not be able to come out on top with one of these opportunities,” Bielema said following Saturday’s close loss at Mississippi State. “But I can promise we’ll take a bye week and get a little bit better, get healthy, and nobody will attack these last three games like the Arkansas Razorbacks.”
That should be a scary thought for No. 19 LSU, which travels to Fayetteville on Nov. 15.
No. 4 Ole Miss probably isn't looking forward to visiting Arkansas the following week.
If Arkansas pulls off the upset either of those games, don’t be surprised. Mullen won’t be. His team is ranked No. 1 in the country and he couldn’t have been more pleased to beat those lowly, unranked Razorbacks. Some might have called it an ugly win, but he was happy to have survived.
As Mullen was leaving his postgame television show late Saturday night, he breathed one last sigh of relief. He knew Arkansas’ record didn’t indicate it, but he said that was a top-25 caliber team he just faced.
“If they weren’t in the SEC West ...” he began.
He didn’t have to finish the argument. We know where it goes.
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Her latest wrath descended upon Colin Cowherd, who claimed "Alabama's dynasty is over." And what an epic rant it was, even by Phyllis standards.
You don't think coaches notice any of that stuff?
Think again. Here's what Arkansas coach Bret Bielema had to say after the Razorbacks' 14-13 loss to Alabama on Saturday.
Bielema: "I have respect for what Alabama has been able to do. I don't want that Phyllis gal from Finebaum calling and yelling at me."— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) October 12, 2014
Obviously Bielema doesn't care as much about what people think of him from a fashion standpoint.
Did you see what this man wore on national TV Saturday during "SEC Nation" on the SEC Network? On a cool, rainy morning in Fayetteville, he went with flip flops and a tracksuit.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In all honesty, Texas A&M probably shouldn't have won Saturday.
The Aggies' offense spent the better part of three quarters out-of-sync. Texas A&M's drive chart in that span looked foreign to those who know them best: Touchdown, punt, punt, punt, touchdown, missed field goal, punt, turnover on downs, punt.
Defensively, they weren't much better: 395 yards yielded in those first three stanzas and 214 on the ground (though 51 should be counted against the special teams for a fake punt). Those special teams had forgettable moments as well, with a missed field goal on top of everything else.
But as Kevin Sumlin-coached teams are wont to do, the No. 6 Aggies found a way to swipe a victory from Arkansas and remain undefeated by climbing out of a two-touchdown hole at AT&T Stadium for a thrilling 35-28 overtime win.
The win provided both cause for concern and signs of encouragement. For starters, the Aggies didn't play to their lofty ranking and often showed why this young team gave so many pause prior to the season.
The Aggies (5-0, 2-0 SEC) knew their run defense would get their first true test of the year from the SEC's top rushing attack. It did (Arkansas ran for 285 yards), and it often left Texas A&M frustrated and chasing Arkansas running backs Alex Collins (131 yards) and Jonathan Williams (95 yards). When the Aggies weren't failing to fill their gaps, play-action passing from Brandon Allen and Co. gave them several headaches.
But when Arkansas (3-2, 0-2) smelled blood and tried to put the Aggies away, the Aggies' defense found its backbone (and the Razorbacks shot themselves in the foot a few times, too). The Razorbacks' final five drives went as such: punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, turnover on downs. The final stop, which came on fourth-and-1 in Arkansas' overtime possession and secured the win, might prove to be a seminal moment for an A&M defense still trying to shake off its 2013 reputation -- last in the SEC in every statistical category that mattered.
Defensively, are the Aggies more what we saw in the first three quarters or the unit seen in the fourth quarter and overtime? That remains to be seen.
Similarly, Texas A&M sophomore sensation Kenny Hill and the Aggies' offense were off, as Sumlin admitted. Starting only his fifth game, Hill showed some of the ills that come with a young quarterback -- forced throws, inaccuracy, inconsistent play -- and his receivers and offensive line contributed at times with dropped passes or by allowing Hill to get pressured.
Conversely, when the Aggies needed a spark, Hill was on the money. He hit Edward Pope and Joshua Reynolds for two huge, fourth-quarter touchdown passes to pull even with the Hogs. He threw a dart to Malcome Kennedy for the game-winning, 25-yard score. It was fitting, considering Hill threw one behind Kennedy in the first half that -- had it been thrown perfectly -- would have likely resulted in a touchdown.
"I just saw him run wide open and said, ‘I need to put it on him,'" Hill said. "They had the defender getting there late, and I had to fit it in to him, and he took care of the rest."
Let's make one thing clear: The Aggies are a good football team. Exactly how good is the question and one that won't be answered for a few weeks.
This improved Arkansas team gave Texas A&M everything it could handle, and though the Hogs are winless in two SEC games (and in 14 straight conference games dating back to 2012), they came away from home against highly-ranked foes (Auburn being the other), and both were contests in which the Razorbacks competed well. The Razorbacks no longer look like pushovers in Bret Bielema's second year, and they have made significant progress from a year ago.
Meanwhile, A&M's season-opening shocker at South Carolina and the Aggies' subsequent dominance of three cupcake opponents has sparked talk of the Aggies being perhaps the best in the SEC and a serious contender for the College Football Playoff. Those goals remain attainable, but those discussions should perhaps pause as this team navigates a gauntlet of a schedule that starts a week from now with a showdown against rising Mississippi State in Starkville. That will be followed by a home date with Ole Miss and a trip to Tuscaloosa for a clash with Alabama.
If the Aggies emerge from that stretch unscathed, they truly do deserve to be mentioned in the top-four discussion.
How the game was won: The Aggies stopped Arkansas running back Alex Collins on a fourth-and-1 in the first overtime, getting a stop when they had to have it. Texas A&M had to scratch and claw after being harassed by Arkansas’ defense all day, but it was able to escape by the skin of its teeth thanks to huge fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Kenny Hill (an 86-yarder to Edward Pope and a 59-yarder to Joshua Reynolds) that turned a 14-point deficit to a tie ballgame and eventually set up overtime. Hill threw a 25-yard strike to Malcome Kennedy to start overtime, and the defense did the rest to secure the win in OT, piggybacking a strong fourth-quarter effort the Aggies gave to keep the Razorbacks from extending the lead.
Gameball goes to: Hill. He had his struggles, from errant throws, including an interception and had to weather the storm as the Aggies looked out of sorts offensively for much of the day. But he made the big throws when the Aggies had to have them late in the game and led the come-from-behind victory. He finished with 386 passing yards and four touchdowns on 21-of-41 passing.
What it means: Texas A&M’s playoff hopes and high ranking are safe for now, but it has a lot of work to do. Arkansas exploited many of the Aggies’ flaws today. The Razorbacks (3-2, 0-2 SEC), meanwhile, are as improved as advertised. Bret Bielema’s bunch has to feel sick after this one, leading by two scores (and having a chance to go up three when a penalty nullified the score). They had control of the game but let it slip away. The SEC West is on alert though, as Arkansas is a pushover no longer.
Playoff implication: The Aggies’ hopes remain alive as they move to 5-0 (2-0 in the SEC).
What's next: Another huge test for Texas A&M at No. 14 Mississippi State in Starkville a week from today. Dak Prescott and Co. are coming off an open date following their landmark win at LSU on Sept. 20.
Arkansas’ offensive philosophy is no secret. The Razorbacks want to run the ball -- a lot.
Using that power-football identity, the Hogs are showing themselves to be a much-improved team in Bret Bielema’s second season in Fayetteville. After the Razorbacks’ obliterated Texas Tech in Lubbock earlier this month to the tune of 438 rushing yards and 49 points, Bielema described his team thusly:
“This is Arkansas football, hog-ball, hog-strong, whatever you want to say it, this is what we are,” Bielema told reporters afterward. “I know at times it ain't that pretty, but it's a heck of a lot of fun.”
The Razorbacks are hoping to have more fun at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday when they meet No. 6 Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It will serve as the season’s first true test for the Aggies’ run defense.
Arkansas averages 45 rushes per game. Against the Red Raiders, the Razorbacks ran the ball a whopping 68 times. Even in their season-opening loss to Auburn, they averaged 5.3 yards per carry. The Aggies, while having performed admirably in Columbia, South Carolina, still must to prove they can stop what the Razorbacks, who have the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC (324.5 yards per game), want to do.
“They're going to make you defend the run and try to go over the top and get behind you with the deep balls and keep the chains moving with the intermediate passing game,” Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “It's no secret what we're going to see Saturday.”
When the teams met last season, the Razorbacks ran the ball quite well. They compiled 201 rushing yards on 30 carries, a healthy 6.7 yards-per-carry average. The Aggies were young and thin on defense then, and while they are still relatively young, the difference in their depth and experience on defense this season is night and day thanks to the baptism many of those players received a year ago and the addition of a top-five nationally ranked 2014 recruiting class that brought in a host of immediate-impact defensive players.
But in 2013, circumstances led to a disastrous season on defense for A&M, especially against the run. The Aggies were last in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (222.3) and 110th in the nation. This season, they're better (124.7 yards per game, sixth in the SEC and 42nd nationally).
Snyder knows what lies ahead. That’s why an emphasis was placed on defending this style long ago.
“We've been working on this for quite a while,” Snyder said. “We worked on it during spring, through fall camp, obviously we had a couple weeks getting ready for South Carolina. Obviously, some of that recall is going to have to come back for some of our guys. This won't be the first offense we've faced that likes to run the ball. We thought we'd get a good dose of that in the first game this year. But they're awfully good.”
Bielema, whose offense returns virtually all of its production from a season ago, expects an improved Texas A&M outfit on defense.
“They're better and they're a more disciplined group,” Bielema said Monday. “They're still a multiple front. ... Mark Snyder is a tremendous X's-and-O's guy. Really good football coach. ... Now it's another year with him and that program, doing what he likes to do, and you can definitely see the rewards of it.”
The Razorbacks boast a large offensive line: At an average of 328.4 pounds per player, their starting offensive line is bigger than any starting NFL offensive line was in Week 1 of pro football. That group is paired with a two-headed monster at running back in Alex Collins (490 rushing yards, 7.5 yards per carry, five touchdowns) and Jonathan Williams (391 rushing yards, 8.1 yards per carry, seven scores).
Those two, combined with the play of the Razorbacks’ offensive front, have been the core of the Razorbacks' success. The improvement of quarterback Brandon Allen has helped the Razorbacks take the next step offensively, and the elevated play helps loosen things up for the running game.
“They don't abandon their run game at all,” Texas A&M junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “If they have two straight losses on the run game and it's third-and-18, they might still run the ball. They don't abandon their run game. They have a big, physical offensive line and I know their head coach used to be at Wisconsin. They would run the ball all the way up there; he has a Big Ten mentality, old-school football, ‘I might put eight offensive linemen on the line of scrimmage this play.’ It's just kind of crazy stuff and they just love their run game."
How Texas A&M handles both of those elements Saturday will determine whether the Aggies truly are an improved defense this season or if there is still much work to be done as the schedule toughens.
“Bret knows what he's doing,” Snyder said. “I spent 10 years in the Big Ten going against Coach [Barry] Alvarez, that's where he got it from. So we have to build a wall and stop the run and have great eyes on the back end.”
The Aggies sound like they’re ready for the test.
“I'm really looking forward to it,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “[Against] South Carolina we were preparing for that kind of a game and they did run it, but we got ahead so we kind of forced them to throw. I don't think we've really seen our fill of running game to this point in the season. I think we're really ready for it.”