Editor's note: The spectacle that is SEC media days ended earlier this week. But with the newly-expanded four-day media event over, we're at a bit of a loss. Fall camp is still weeks away; the regular season is even further, with the 2014 campaign kicking off at the end of August. So what better time to roll out the preseason power rankings among teams in the SEC?
With that in mind, we'll count down the teams from worst to first. The format will involve a "best-case/worst-case" scenario for each team, taking our a page out of former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter's playbook from 2010. (One final note: Please, as Bitter said four years ago, remember all scenarios "are meant to be hyperbolic.")
No. 12: Arkansas
Compared to last year's SEC media days, Bret Bielema was downright subdued in his second appearance at the annual event last week. There were no barbs lobbed at fellow coaches, no controversial comments. It was a fairly routine time behind the podium for Arkansas' coach — certainly nothing close to last year's standoff with Auburn's Gus Malzahn, when the two vehemently disagreed over (the possible dangers to defensive players presented by) hurry-up, no-huddle offenses.
With that being said ... Bielema couldn't help but give media members one juicy quote. Earlier that day, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said any talk of up-tempo offenses being dangerous was pure "fiction."
What do you think of that, Bret?
"Not to carry from last year, but I'm probably more of a reality‑based movie guy more than fiction, I guess. I think I deal more in what I know, what I see, what I believe," he said. " ... I have seen a couple good fiction movies, though, so I know good fiction when I see it."
Now the challenge is for the Razorbacks to reverse course from last year's dreary 3-9 showing. Or to turn a nightmare into a non-fiction, reality-based flick, so to speak.
Best-case scenario: Though he downplays the "personal rivalry" aspect afterward, Bielema is euphoric to knock off Malzahn and a top 10 Tigers team on the road in the season opener. Without the services of Nick Marshall due to a suspension stemming from his marijuana citation, Jeremy Johnson plays well enough, but in his first start against an SEC foe, he makes a few miscues at key moments — and the Razorbacks take advantage. Using its 1-2 punch of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams in the backfield, Arkansas controls the clock and keeps Auburn's high-octane attack off the field. With two scores each from Collins and Williams — and a costly interception from Johnson on the game's final drive, as he tries to force a pass to D'haquille Williams in double coverage — Arkansas is able to pull out a 31-27 victory. More than just ending its school-record nine-game losing streak, it marks Arkansas' first win versus an SEC opponent since beating Kentucky 49-7 in October 2012.
With the marquee victory of Bielema's tenure at Arkansas in hand, the Razorbacks jump out to a 5-0 start for the first time since 1998. That sets up a home contest versus fellow undefeated Alabama. It's tight until the fourth period, but a more experienced and battle-tested Nick Saban squad emerges with the 30-21 win. Still a bit down following the defeat to the Crimson Tide, the Razorbacks drop their second straight contest, as Georgia takes a 34-20 victory in Little Rock, Ark.
The game with Alabama-Birmingham the following week comes at the perfect time, as Arkansas wallops its overmatched foe 52-7. With momentum back on their side, the Razorbacks don't lose again, taking wins against Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri to close out the regular season.
In a non-playoff year, the Razorbacks would probably head to the Sugar Bowl. With it serving as one of the two semifinal sites in 2014, however, Arkansas ends up landing in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla. There, Bielema faces a familiar foe: his old team, Wisconsin. In a game that looks like it's straight out of the Big Ten, it's a low-scoring slugfest. But Collins, the best player on the field, comes through when it counts most, breaking free for a 34-yard touchdown with seven minutes remaining. That ends up being the difference in the 14-10 decision.
With 11 wins in Year 2, all of Bielema's critics from the previous season disappear. Hog fans are beside themselves, once again "Beliemers" in the man at the helm of their beloved program. (Though thankfully, any links to this video are tastefully expunged from Internet archives. And this one. But not this one.)
As he's making bowl preparations in late December, Beliema gets another dose of good news: The evidence he has been longing for has finally been found. A study is released stating that, indeed, hurry-up, no-huddle offenses are a danger to defensive players. In light of the findings, rules are quickly passed to slow down these offenses. Bret beams; Gus grimaces. It's a familiar facial expression for Malzahn in 2014, as his team, crushed under the weight of immense expectations and a rigorous schedule, goes 5-7.
Worst-case scenario: As bad as 2013 was for the Razorbacks, 2014 is even worse. Not all of it is Bielema's fault, of course. It's just that the Razorbacks' slate is so mind-boggling difficult.
USA Today's Paul Myerberg put it this way in his season preview of Arkansas:
"(The schedule) includes nine teams coming off eight or more wins: Auburn, Alabama, Missouri, Texas Tech, Northern Illinois, Texas A&M, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi. Eight of those nine opponents — Georgia the exception — finished among the top 32 in the final Coaches Poll, if we dig into those teams receiving votes. If we remove Nicholls State from the equation, the lone opponent on Arkansas' schedule that shouldn't end its year in the postseason is UAB. The schedule is disgusting."
That's why, Marshall or no Marshall, the Razorbacks can't keep up with the Tigers in the season opener, getting blasted 49-3. No matter the venue, Arkansas finds it nearly impossible to find victories. They lose at home (Northern Illinois, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss) and on the road (Texas Tech, Mississippi State and Missouri). The two wins the Razorbacks salvage, against Nicholls State and UAB, respectively, is of little solace to the team or its fan base.
The five wins in Bielema's first two seasons is the worst two-year stretch for the school since 1952-53, when the Razorbacks also combined for five victories (2-8 in 1952, 3-7 in 1953). Faced with the tough decision of whether to keep Bielema around for another season, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long elects to stick with his coach. (Though Long doesn't mention it, the fact the school owes Bielema a $12.8 million buyout if he's fired in either 2014 or 2015 figures prominently in his decision.)
Things aren't any better in other areas for Bielema.
A study is released in late December which conclusively reports that hurry-up, no-huddle offenses don't lead to any increase in injuries to defensive players. It concludes, in fact, that it lessens the number of injuries since it forces defenders to get in better physical shape.
And to add further insult, two of those frenetic offensive attacks — Auburn and Oregon — meet in the initial College Football playoff championship game. There, the Tigers beat the Ducks just as they did in the 2011 BCS title contest, bringing the national championship to the SEC for the eighth time in nine years and helping Auburn rectify its loss to Florida State last year. While Bielema enters 2015 on the hottest seat in the country, his arch-nemesis, Malzahn, is being bandied about as a consensus top three coach in the nation along with Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer.