Bret Bielema was asked what was the biggest adjustment to joining the SEC last year, after spending practically his entire career in the Big Ten. He didn’t mention the weather, the passion of the fan base or quality of the recruits.
“Winning vs. losing. It’s that simple,” Bielema said. “I didn’t come here to lose.”
But he did just that last year, as Arkansas went 3-9, in what Bielema and Razorbacks fans hope was the low point in a remarkable two-year dip.
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Two years ago, Arkansas was competing with the other SEC West powers, led by head coach Bobby Petrino’s high-octane offense. Then came Petrino’s infamous motorcycle crash and firing, followed by a forgettable season under interim head coach John L. Smith.
Arkansas then stunned college football by landing Bielema, who had a 68-24 record at Wisconsin, including three straight Rose Bowl berths. But the talkative Bielema couldn’t engineer an immediate turnaround, finishing the season on a nine-game losing streak.
“I’ll take a minute to talk about last year,” Bielema said Wednesday, then waited a second. “That’s about all I need to do.”
As the Razorbacks made the rounds at SEC media days, the vast majority of the talk was about the team’s season opener against Auburn. Not only are the Tigers the defending SEC champs, but Bielema and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn have bickered publicly about the pace-of-play debate.
But Georgia also has an interesting matchup with the Razorbacks. The two teams will meet Oct. 18 in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Arkansas plays at least once a year but usually against a lesser opponent.
It will be the two teams’ first matchup since 2010 and Georgia’s first game in Little Rock.
“Every time we do get the opportunity to play in Little Rock, the fans are amazing and it’s a great atmosphere. And then to have a quality team like Georgia to be there, it’s gonna be real great,” Arkansas safety Alan Turner said. “Even though it’s a smaller stadium it can get loud, I guess because of the way it’s made.”
The Razorbacks return seven offensive starters and six on defense. But when the SEC media preseason poll is released Thursday, they’re expected to be picked near the bottom.
Still, Bielema believes he has laid the groundwork for a good off-field program. He pointed to increased GPA, a lack of off-field problems and players volunteering for community service.
“If you sat down and interviewed my AD, I think he would tell you in every aspect other than wins ... you can’t do anything but be happy with what we’ve done,” Bielema said.
There were some glimmers of improvement as last season ended. In their penultimate game, the Razorbacks took Mississippi State to overtime before losing. And in their finale, they went to LSU and gave the Tigers a scare before falling 31-27.
It was a definite improvement for a team that in October dropped consecutive games to South Carolina and Alabama by a combined score of 104-7.
“We had that at the end of the game, just a few plays away from winning,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. “We know how far we came. We know how far we have to go.”