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

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

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

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
2005 FBS Rank 2012 FBS Rank
Preseason AP NR 12
Scoring Offense 34.3 ppg 14 29.6 ppg 60
Scoring Defense 23.8 ppg 48 19.1 ppg 17
Record 10-3 8-6
Bowl Game Capital One Rose
Result Beat No. 7 Auburn Lost to No. 8 Stanford
Final AP 15 NR

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 '05 FBS Rank Arkansas '12 FBS Rank
Preseason AP NR 10
Scoring Offense 34.3 ppg 14 23.5 ppg 91
Scoring Defense 23.8 ppg 48 30.4 ppg 82
Record 10-3 4-8
Bowl Game Capital One NONE
Result Beat No. 7 Auburn
Final AP Rank 15 NR

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
2012 FBS Rank 2013 FBS Rank
Preseason AP 10 NR
Scoring Offense 23.5 ppg 91 20.7 ppg 106
Scoring Defense 30.4 ppg 82 30.8 ppg 89
Record 4-8 3-9
Bowl Game NONE NONE
Final AP Rank NR NR

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 '12 Arkansas '13
FCS Northern Iowa W Louisiana-Lafayette W
at Oregon State L FCS Samford W
Utah State W Southern Miss W
UTEP W at Rutgers L
at No. 22 Nebraska L No. 10 Texas A&M L
Illinois W at No. 18 Florida L
at Purdue W No. 14 South Carolina L
Minnesota W at No. 1 Alabama L
Michigan State L No. 8 Auburn L
at Indiana W at Ole Miss L
No. 6 Ohio State L Mississippi State L
at Penn State L at No. 15 LSU L

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.

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

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
Wisconsin Nebraska Arkansas LSU
2006 40 20 27 7
2007 34 13 31 4
2008 41 30 36 11
2009 43 28 16 2
2010 88 22 49 6
2011 40 15 24 6
2012 56 25 33 17
2013 56 17 26 6
2014 33 32 29 2

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.

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

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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