Arkansas Football: Bielema's 3 Biggest Challenges for Razorbacks in 2014
Keep your sanity a little bit longer, because the start of the college football season is just three short months away. The Arkansas Razorbacks have an early start this year with their season opener at Auburn scheduled for August 30.
There's still a lot of work the Razorbacks have to do to prepare for their opener against the national runner-up from last year.
They don't just have to put in work for the Auburn game, either. As a member of the SEC, the Hogs have a tough schedule every year. So, they have to continue to get better to prepare for a number of tough battles throughout the year.
Head coach Bret Bielema and his team are going to have challenges—and lots of them. But what are the biggest challenges Bielema's Hogs will have in 2014?
We'll go over the three things that will challenge Arkansas the most in the upcoming season.
One of the hardest things for a team to learn how to do when it's rebuilding is closing out games—you know, taking care of the ball down the stretch, making key stops on defense and running the ball effectively.
The Hogs may have finished 3-9 in 2013, but they had several games where they gave up the lead in the fourth quarter. The Rutgers and LSU games immediately come to mind.
At Rutgers early in the season, Arkansas gave up a 17-point lead in the second half. In the last 10 minutes of the game, the offense couldn't move the ball, and the defense gave up 14 points as the Razorbacks lost a game they had control of entering the final quarter.
Then there was the heartbreaker in Death Valley against the LSU Tigers. A battered and beaten-down Arkansas team entered the final game of the year as big a underdog. The Hogs played valiantly and had a 27-21 lead with 7:14 left in the game.
However, the offense became stagnant. The Tigers kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to three with 4:56 remaining. After another three-and-out, punter Sam Irwin-Hill pinned LSU at its own 1-yard line. Down 27-24, the Tigers needed a 99-yard drive with 3:04 on the clock and did just that, marching the length of the field to score a touchdown and win the game, 31-27.
Though the defense allowed LSU to drive 99 yards for the decisive score, the offense was also to blame. In the final quarter, the offense managed only nine plays for 24 yards on three drives. A Brandon Allen fumble on the Hogs' last attempt to win the contest following LSU's 99-yard drive sealed the loss for Arkansas.
If the Hogs want to leave behind all the losing they've done in the last two years, they must close out games.
Bielema knows that his team will be in similar situations in 2014. While it's understandably hard to win games against teams like LSU, when you have a late lead, you have to do the necessary things to win.
The offense has to continue to make plays and not be so conservative. Of course it wants to be somewhat conservative and run the ball to keep the clock ticking. But running up the middle on first and second down for minimal gains then passing on 3rd-and-long is predictable and isn't going to fool anyone.
The offense's failure to make plays late in games made the defense have to stay on the field a lot, which didn't help it as far as rest was concerned. Still, the defense has to make plays itself and not give up long, meticulous drives to opponents.
Taking care of the ball is also something the Hogs have to do when closing out games. Even after LSU scored to take the lead, Arkansas had a chance to win the game, but Allen's fumble ended any hope the Razorbacks had.
If the Hogs want to start winning games, they must learn to close out foes. It's going to be a big challenge, but doing it could be the key to winning two to three more games.
Taking Care of the Ball
You don't have to be an expert on football to know that taking care of the ball is one of the most important aspects to winning games. A team could have the most talented roster in the country, but if it can't avoid turnovers, it's going to lose games.
Taking care of the ball is even more important for a team such as Arkansas that is rebuilding and has a much smaller margin for error.
The Hogs were one of the worst teams in the country in 2013 in turnover margin. They ranked 111th nationally with a turnover margin of minus-0.8 per game. Making matters worse, the Razorbacks tied for 112th with just 14 turnovers gained while tying for 79th with 23 total turnovers.
You're not going to win a lot of games with those kind of numbers, especially in the country's best conference. Bielema has to get his guys to take better care of the football, or 2014 will be another rough year.
Part of the problem falls on the shoulders of Allen, who threw 10 interceptions.
Bielema and the staff worked extensively with Allen this spring on being more accurate with his passes and making better decisions. He has looked much more competent this offseason in Arkansas' three scrimmages, completing 46 of 66 passes (69.7 percent). However, he threw seven touchdowns with five picks, which isn't great.
If Allen can't make better decisions and be more accurate, Bielema will look to Austin Allen or Rafe Peavey early on to step in and take his place.
The running backs also need to cut down on turnovers. While they weren't responsible for all 12 fumbles lost last year, they were responsible for the majority of them.
The 12 lost fumbles tied the Hogs for 97th nationally. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams have to make sure they are securing the ball when running through waves of defenders. Both are so good at making quick cuts and juking that they can forget to secure the ball while doing so. Just taking the extra second to secure the ball would help immensely.
Arkansas is trying to get back to its winning ways. Turnovers have held the Hogs back from winning games. They can add a few more W's in 2014 if they can not only cut down on turnovers, but also create them.
Yes, the 2014 schedule itself is going to the biggest challenge for Bielema and his Razorbacks. The schedule is always tough when you're in the SEC, but the Hogs' slate this year is especially difficult.
How hard is it? According to the NCAA's strength-of-schedule method, Arkansas has the toughest schedule in the entire country.
The combined record from 2013 for the Hogs' opponents on the slate this year is 103-54 (65.6 percent winning percentage). Compare that to a team such as Alabama, which is ranked 95th in SOS with opponents' records combining for 71-79 (47.3 percent), and you can get an idea of how big of a challenge the Razorbacks have ahead of them.
Diving into the numbers even further, 10 of the teams Arkansas faces this year made a bowl game last season, and seven were in the final BCS standings at the end of the year. Any way you look at it, the Hogs' schedule is going to be one heck of a challenge.
The good news is that it's an even-numbered year, which means Arkansas plays most of its hardest games at home. Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss are all home games, so that's a positive.
The fact that the Razorbacks have one of the toughest schedules in the country means things like closing out games and taking care of the ball will be that much more important.
It's going to be tough winning a few more games with such a daunting slate, but players should be excited about the challenge. If they're not, then they shouldn't be playing. You find out the most about a program and the fight in its players in years like this.
If the Hogs are truly making progress and moving in the right direction, how hard of a schedule they have this year won't matter.
Bryan Heater is the featured columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.