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Did Bret Bielema Make a Huge Mistake by Going to the SEC?

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Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2014

Only 14 months after the shocking announcement that Bret Bielema was leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas, the storyline has morphed from “Why is he going?” to “Can he survive another season?”

How did the coach of the three-time Big Ten champions become coach of the 3-9 Razorbacks, and was his decision to go one of the biggest coaching missteps in recent history?

 

Bielema at Wisconsin

Bielema was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach at Wisconsin in 2006, selected by long-time coach Barry Alvarez as his successor.

In his six seasons at Wisconsin, Bielema never posted a losing record, never sat home during bowl season and only once—in 2008—did his Badgers not finish in the Top 25.

The biggest achievement was his string of Big Ten championships from 2010 to 2012, the only three-peat in school history.

Bielema celebrates Wisconsin's win over Michigan State in the 2012 Big Ten title game.
Bielema celebrates Wisconsin's win over Michigan State in the 2012 Big Ten title game.Leon Halip/Getty Images

What’s important to remember about Bielema is that the Badger program was in good shape when he took over the reins in 2006.

While Alvarez’s numbers had slipped from 2001 to 2003, he posted a 9-3 mark in 2004 and went 10-3 in his final season in 2005.

Alvarez’s last game was the Capital One Bowl, which No. 21 Wisconsin won 24-10 over No. 7 Auburn, propelling the Badgers to a No. 15-ranking in the final AP poll.

This was not a rebuilding project—it was a “let’s take it from here and see how high it can go” job.

So, while there is no arguing Bielema’s success at Wisconsin, he didn’t necessarily get it from point A to point Z, he came in at S or T.

Take a look at some numbers comparing the 2005 squad (Alvarez’s final season) with the team in 2012 (Bielema’s last season).

Wisconsin 2005 vs. 2012
2005FBS Rank2012FBS Rank
Preseason APNR12
Scoring Offense34.3 ppg1429.6 ppg60
Scoring Defense23.8 ppg4819.1 ppg17
Record10-38-6
Bowl GameCapital OneRose
ResultBeat No. 7 AuburnLost to No. 8 Stanford
Final AP15NR
Sports Reference-College Football

The point here is that other than making huge strides in scoring defense, Bielema didn’t transform the program into something new by the time that he had left for Arkansas.

The other intriguing angle to Bielema’s run is the state of the Big Ten during his three-year championship streak.

The Badgers’ run came at the same time—2010 through 2012—as Ohio State’s fall from grace at the end of the Jim Tressel era. 

Though this doesn’t mean that the Badgers didn’t earn each and every championship they captured, it does remind you a bit of the two titles the NBA Houston Rockets won (1994-1995) during Michael Jordan’s hiatus from the Chicago Bulls to play baseball.

Where the Bulls won it all in 1993 and 1996, the Buckeyes won in 2009, shared the 2010 title, went 6-7 under interim head coach Luck Fickell in 2011 and were ineligible to win in 2012.

In both cases the misfortune of one team cleared the championship path for another.

 

Arkansas Coming into 2013

When Bielema opted to make the move to Arkansas, the hand he was dealt when he arrived was night and day different compared with what he had faced at Wisconsin in 2006.

Take a look at the numbers straight-up.

2005 Wisconsin vs. 2012 Arkansas
Wisconsin '05FBS RankArkansas '12FBS Rank
Preseason APNR10
Scoring Offense34.3 ppg1423.5 ppg91
Scoring Defense23.8 ppg4830.4 ppg82
Record10-34-8
Bowl GameCapital OneNONE
ResultBeat No. 7 Auburn
Final AP Rank15NR
Sports Reference-College Football

This makes a clear case that Bielema was in a bad spot coming into the 2013 season at Arkansas.  This was true even though just a year before the team had finished 11-2 and were No. 5 in the final AP poll. Clearly, something had gone wrong in Fayetteville and it wasn’t going to be easy to fix.

Add in that the Razorbacks returned only 11 starters from 2012 to 2013 (No. 12 in the SEC and No. 98 in the FBS) and the situation looks even grimmer in retrospect.

 

The 2013 Results

So, how did Bielema do with his young Arkansas team in 2013?  Remember this is the same program which was spiraling out of control under John L. Smith only months before.

Here’s a look at what he walked into versus what he managed to pump out.

Arkansas 2012 vs. 2013
2012FBS Rank2013FBS Rank
Preseason AP10NR
Scoring Offense23.5 ppg9120.7 ppg106
Scoring Defense30.4 ppg8230.8 ppg89
Record4-83-9
Bowl GameNONENONE
Final AP RankNRNR
College Football-Sports Reference

Bielema’s first product at Arkansas actually took a statistical step backwards from Smith’s woeful 2012 team. This is hard to stomach despite the inexperience Bielema had to work with. 

On one hand you had an interim head coach hired in late April to do damage control, while on the other you had a three-time Big Ten champion coach hired in December who was meant to be the permanent solution.

What makes it even more difficult is knowing that Gus Malzahn managed to take an Auburn team that went 3-9 in 2012 to the heights of a 12-2 mark in only his first season in 2013.

 

Gaining Some Perspective

What’s key to remember when comparing stats between SEC and Big Ten teams—and their coaches—is that it’s not always an apples-to-apples type of deal.

The strength of schedule is different (meaning a win doesn’t always equal a win), talent levels are different and even expectations are different.

To illustrate, take a look at Bielema’s last regular-season schedule at Wisconsin versus his first slate at Arkansas.

Regular-Season Schedules: 2012 Wisconsin vs. 2013 Arkansas
Wisconsin '12Arkansas '13
FCS Northern IowaWLouisiana-LafayetteW
at Oregon StateLFCS SamfordW
Utah StateWSouthern MissW
UTEPWat RutgersL
at No. 22 NebraskaLNo. 10 Texas A&ML
IllinoisWat No. 18 FloridaL
at PurdueWNo. 14 South CarolinaL
MinnesotaWat No. 1 AlabamaL
Michigan StateLNo. 8 AuburnL
at IndianaWat Ole MissL
No. 6 Ohio StateLMississippi StateL
at Penn StateLat No. 15 LSUL
Sports Reference-College Football

What it amounts to is a Big Ten schedule with league games against two ranked teams versus the SEC slate with six ranked foes.

That’s three times as many ranked opponents, making it not only not an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s not even an all-fruit affair.

Arkansas didn't win an SEC game in 2013, the first time it went 0-fer since joining the league in 1992.
Arkansas didn't win an SEC game in 2013, the first time it went 0-fer since joining the league in 1992.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Next, take a look at Bielema’s recruiting class rankings at Wisconsin versus Arkansas’ numbers for the same time period.  To add further perspective, Nebraska and LSU are included to give a gauge within each conference.

Recruiting Class Rankings 2006-2014
WisconsinNebraskaArkansasLSU
20064020277
20073413314
200841303611
20094328162
20108822496
20114015246
201256253317
20135617266
20143332292
Rivals

This identifies one common denominator between Arkansas and Wisconsin:  They don’t recruit as well as other top-tier programs in the same division. 

Keep in mind that Nebraska and LSU aren't even the top dogs in recruiting in their respective conferences.  In the Big Ten Ohio State and Michigan are tops, while in the leaders are Alabama and Auburn.

One of the things Bielema was so successful at during his time at Wisconsin was taking mid-level recruits and transforming them into championship teams.  Though this is doable in the Big Ten, it is a task that is near impossible in the SEC, where the schedules are more difficult and a bigger proportion of the opposition is fielding top-ranked talent.

To quantify this, the average recruiting ranking across the Big Ten from 2010-2014 was 41.6 versus 20.5 for the SEC over the same time period.

 

What’s Next?

Though it’s too early to declare the Bielema experiment at Arkansas a great hire or a big bust, it isn’t premature to say that he’s fighting an uphill battle.

If he is to succeed in getting the Razorbacks back into championship form, he’ll have to win games despite not having Alabama, LSU, Auburn or Texas A&M-like talent.  And, he’ll have to do it against the best combined set of opponents in the nation.

It’s simple: Fielding a title team in the SEC is a different animal altogether than making magic in the Big Ten.

Will Bielema rue the day he opted to put on a Razorbacks' hat?
Will Bielema rue the day he opted to put on a Razorbacks' hat?Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Here’s what Steve Spurrier had to say about it at the SEC Media Days in 2012, according to Jon Cooper at Saturday Down South.

It’s easier to win the national championship than the SEC.  Ask Nick Saban.

If this is true—and it could be argued that it is—it would have been easier for Bielema to stay at Wisconsin and put together a national title team than it will be for him to capture an SEC crown at Arkansas.

As to whether he made a mistake moving from the Big Ten to the SEC, the answer may not have anything to do with Bielema. No, the question may instead only serve to highlight Bobby Petrino’s astonishing achievement at Arkansas—a feat that could be almost impossible to duplicate.

 

Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference-College Football and College Football Data Warehouse.  Recruiting rankings courtesy of Rivals.

 

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