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Competing in the SEC



The closure of another college football season came this week, and again an SEC team (more specifically, those ever-lovable, filthy rogues from Tuscaloosa) claimed the kingdom by way of a 28-point thrashing of Notre Dame that was in no way actually that close. You will read much about the conference's string of seven straight national championships, but this heretofore-unseen dominance is truly a buzzkill like no other. Who wants to sit down on a sleepy Monday night and watch these kinds of slaughters year after year?

Only Auburn's title at the end of the 2010 season was fiercely contested. The last-minute field goal in that game against Oregon gave the Tigers a three-point win, whereas the other six championship games have been decided by an average of 19 points, all being double-digit margins of victory. Assuredly this is factoring into the decision to put the Final Four-style championship mechanism in place come 2014, but let's put aside logistics for a moment and turn the discussion inward.

Arkansas will begin the next iteration of the Bowl Championship Series in the same familiar also-ran position it has dutifully assumed for decades. No team that sees its win total dip by seven in the span of 11 months can earnestly rejoice much in the successes of the conference at large, particularly when the league's overall strength has increased exponentially. Vanderbilt has forcefully shed its former doormat status, Texas A&M authored an impossibly aggressive debut in the league, and there are ample signs that the Mississippi schools will continue to be competitive at worst.

Houston Nutt was overly fond of declaring the SEC the "toughest conference in America" to the point that it became laughably trite, but he was both correct for the time and prescient about the future. If the Razorbacks are going to be more than an ancillary part of a national title conversation at any point, Bret Bielema has to treat his new venture differently than his predecessor did. Bobby Petrino's bravado was refreshing and readily embraced — he wanted to prove that system could overtake substance, and on many occasions, he did extract triumph from that philosophy.

Bielema clearly typifies a more old-school manner of thought, and isn't necessarily obsessive about style points. That's not to belittle Petrino retroactively, because his teams did flash toughness and discipline here and there. The Petrino Hogs also won ugly on occasion, and that'll certainly do in a pinch.

But Jeff Long was no doubt drawn to Bielema because, as mentioned here previously, his teams were almost never out of games. If Arkansas is to ever ascend to the heights that Alabama has, it can't just crumple against those top-heavy teams and watch the game clock tick away. Power football may not have universal aesthetic appeal but it's important to be able to play it in the current context of this BCS menagerie that has been constructed. Even when Gus Malzahn's spread carried Auburn to the crown, the Tigers never shirked a commitment to emphatic line play. Nick Fairley was as dirty a player as any in recent memory, but he gave an otherwise average defensive line a genuine imposing presence. Cam Newton was gloriously gifted, but he wasn't afraid to lower a shoulder and push for key inches, either. This isn't patent advocacy for a return to a run-heavy offense, but it does echo Bielema's theme of balance as stated in his introduction to Arkansans on Dec. 5.

As each BCS national championship game enters the ledger, Arkansas appears further and further away from being a part of subsequent editions. The 2012 season may have been an aberration of sorts but it also shows that Bielema's reconstruction task isn't just about the usual bullet points. It's not even within the realm of dispute that Arkansas needs to establish longer and wider recruiting pipelines to talent-rich states, or that it needs to utilize those avenues to galvanize the roster.

It's why Bielema has quickly extended his reach to the likes of Randy Shannon as linebackers coach or Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator. As everyone observes Alabama trampling roughshod over a reborn Fighting Irish program with recruits who are essentially so well-developed as to be plug-and-play, Heath Ledger's memorable utterance from "The Dark Knight" comes to mind: "Our operation is small, but there's a lot of potential for... 'aggressive expansion.' " For arguably the first time ever, the athletic program has, and will clearly deploy, the financial resources to foster that.

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