- Brian Chilson
- Bret Bielema (file photo)
Those who have read this column with some degree of regularity know that I've held fast to the belief that Bret Bielema can and will revive the Arkansas football program. I like the guy. He's affable and self-effacing, defers appropriately to his support staff, and is seemingly quite passionate about the job he holds and cognizant of the expectations (those unwieldy ones that the fan base foists on him) that it connotes.
Bielema was operating at a steady if somewhat listless pace getting toward his objectives. About six weeks ago, it looked like his fourth team at Arkansas would be his most accomplished, against long odds. With a first-year starting quarterback operating behind an incomprehensibly porous line, and with a defense that could be a sieve in a moment's notice, he had an outside shot at taking this ragtag group to nine or 10 wins as recently as mid-November.
A funny thing happened on the way to Faurot (Field), though. When the Hogs arrived in Columbia to face East bottom-feeder Missouri in the season finale, they looked disturbingly lackadaisical in a game against the only team they were favored to beat in conference play. Even in the first half, when Arkansas built a 24-7 lead, there were leaks and problems afoot, and the emperor got disrobed in a big damn hurry over the final 30 minutes of play in a 28-24 loss that amplified all the lingering concerns about Bielema and his leadership of the program. The team stifled itself in the second half, a trend that has ensnared Razorback football mighty hard over those three prior campaigns and into this one, and had no roadmap for an escape.
So there was this nasty, foul taste heading to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte a month after that defeat, and it almost played out in a way that smacked of black comedy. The team that can't close builds a 24-0 lead on the strength of a really well-played first half, even against the backdrop of some questionable officiating, and then literally gags on every bite it takes after halftime.
And the scene worsened as the day progressed. The pregame disclosure that Jeremy Sprinkle was suspended due to an embarrassing shoplifting farce at, of all places, the local Belk, followed by Drew Morgan's fumbles and boorish, ejection-worthy behavior as the game fell apart, led one to the natural conclusion that Bielema's control of the program is loosening at a breakneck rate. Virginia Tech was, of course, the favorite, and a competent team in all respects, so it took full advantage of all gaffes and missteps by its opponent.
That means 2017 starts with a team in turmoil, just as reconstruction and expansion of Reynolds Razorback Stadium is in its full-throated, cash-snatching puberty. And for what? A stadium that will presumably seat another 10,000 fans in the fall is going to find no takers. Bielema's teams are noted for playing hard, which is commendable, but also for giving ground in the second half at an alarming frequency. Arkansas has lost a dozen games in the last three years in which it led or was tied at halftime or thereafter. The team could have been so much better than 22-17 over that stretch.
For a while, the progress his teams had made was enough to offset this. There was comfort to be drawn from the fact that the Hogs were actually competing in these games, rather than just coughing them up minutes after kickoff. But in 2016, things were different. The Hogs lost six games, and the first four were of the quit-before-you-start variety, then the final two reflected the old trend in full bloom again.
This, of course, has a chilling effect on recruiting, which Bielema cannot afford to flub, given that he's not seen as some kind of tactician who can routinely outcoach the other guy. He has to have the proverbial horses, and the terminus of 2016 is so bad that it's going to be hell trying to get top-tier talent into the stables. Robb Smith's come under all manner of fire for the failings of the defense, but Dan Enos just captained an offense that, despite gobs of production on the surface, failed to breach the end zone in the second halves of four of the six losses. The flaws are rampant and extreme, and they revealed themselves at the worst possible time.
Are changes, then, forthcoming? Let's just say they'd better be, en masse and with conviction. There cannot be a repeat of this type of year in 2017, not because of the wins and losses, but because of the dearth of confidence in the direction of the program. Personnel corrections will ebb that angry tide somewhat, and Bielema, who came here four years ago on the promise of being able to hire and fire high-level staff, is again faced with that crossroads. This time, though, it's to save his own backside.