Arkansas HC Bret Bielema Finding out There Is 'Nothing Like' SEC Football

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 Arkansas HC Bret Bielema Finding out There Is 'Nothing Like' SEC Football
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It wasn't supposed to be this way for Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema.

Bielema made the jump from Wisconsin of the Big Ten to the SEC's Arkansas Razorbacks prior to the 2013 season, with three straight Big Ten titles and three straight Rose Bowl appearances under his belt.

The "three" theme continued early in 2013, as the Hogs won three straight to start the season on the heels of three straight 100-yard rushing performances from then-true freshman running back Alex Collins—who just so happens to wear No. 3.

Then the wheels came off.

The Hogs lost nine straight games to close the season, and they finished 0-8 in the SEC for the first time in program history.

Quite a change from Bielema's dominance of the Big Ten.

Butch Dill/Associated Press
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema

"The part that jumps out to me is the week-to-week grind," Bielema said. "Certain coaches were hacked off about the SEC only having eight conference games. Well I'd love to see them come try those eight. There's just nothing like it in the world of college football."

The big change Bielema noticed in his inaugural campaign in the SEC was up front on defense, where teams rotated members of the front four often to keep bodies fresh to combat his power rushing attack with Collins and rising junior Jonathan Williams.

"Specifically, the power, the speed and the depth in the defensive linemen was very impressive," Bielema said.

Bielema found that out the hard way last year.

His quarterback Brandon Allen hurt his shoulder diving into the end zone for a touchdown against Southern Miss in the third game of the season. Allen sat out the next game—a loss at Rutgers—and struggled to stay healthy because of the constant barrage of big men.

"Obviously I can't go into great detail, but there were about four or five straight weeks where he wan't able to practice and not really doing anything except walkthroughs and play on Saturdays," Bielema said. "That's a true testament to his character and what he's all about."

Bill Haber/Associated Press
Arkansas QB Brandon Allen

The ability to keep those big, athletic bodies fresh is obviously a huge advantage for SEC teams, especially during the season and when that grind starts to take a toll. But it's not just about the defense.

Last year was a banner year for the SEC in the quarterback department, with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel taking snaps at Texas A&M, highly decorated senior AJ McCarron at Alabama and record-setting signal-caller Aaron Murray at Georgia, among others. 

That, coupled with his quarterback's struggle to stay healthy, created a perfect storm that contributed to the rough road in Year 1.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema

"Every league is quarterback-driven," Bielema said. "In this league in particular, if you have a guy who knows the league, knows how to manage the game, get you out of some difficult situations and not put you in bad ones, it will work very well."

Off the field, one change was welcomed by Bielema with open arms.

The ability to hire and retain a staff at Arkansas was a big selling point for the former Wisconsin head coach, and even though he lost some assistants between his first and second campaign in Fayetteville, the possibility to hire top-notch assistants separates the SEC.

"It was the No. 1 reason for leaving Wisconsin," Bielema said. "I just didn't have the support financially to get it done. They've changed a bit now, but it's just the world of college football. The SEC, in general, sort of sets the standard for what goes on around the world of college football and it's fun to be a part of it."

Bret Bielema's 1,000-Yard Rushers
Year Player Team Rush Yds.
2006 P.J. Hill Wisconsin 1,569
2007 P.J. HIll Wisconsin 1,212
2008 P.J. Hill Wisconsin 1,161
2009 John Clay Wisconsin 1,517
2010 James White Wisconsin 1,052
2010 John Clay Wisconsin 1,012
2011 Montee Ball Wisconsin 1,923
2012 Montee Ball Wisconsin 1,830
2013 Alex Collins Arkansas 1,026

ESPN.com/Wisconsin Media Guide

As for this year, Bielema has some pieces in place to make a surprise turnaround if the Hogs stay healthy. 

Collins and Williams are back at running back, and the emergence of sophomore speedster Korliss Marshall as a home run threat will give the coaching staff the ability to produce a multi-dimensional rushing attack even if the passing game struggles in 2014.

The deep stable of running backs presents a "rich man's problem" for Bielema. Luckily for him, balancing three running backs is something he experienced quite a bit at Wisconsin, including the 2010 season when James White and John Clay broke the 1,000-yard mark and Montee Ball added 996 of his own.

The ability to manage carries and, perhaps more importantly, egos, will be a huge benefit to this Hogs team.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Arkansas DE Trey Flowers

"It's not a 'me, me, me' game, it's a 'we, we, we' game," Bielema said. "Those guys know that, when they tapped their helmets to come out, the next play could go the distance and they want to make sure the fresh guy is in there. The more I can help build a selfless attitude and help the guys understand that it's a team trying to win a game play by play and person by person."

Defensively, the Hogs lost defensive end Chris Smith and defensive coordinator Chris Ash left his post to take a job at Ohio State. In Ash's place is Robb Smith, who will have the luxury of having some quality pieces along the defensive line, including Trey Flowers and Darius Philon.

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The overwhelming theme for this year's Hogs defense is simplifying the defense and building a unit that generates pressure with four linemen and allows the secondary—which is long on experience but short on production—to take advantage.

"Robb Smith brings a simplicity," Bielema said. "He has a background in both the NFL and college football. Our defense is going to play a lot more aggressively at the line of scrimmage and get after the quarterback. I'm very, very excited about him."

Year 1 didn't go according to Bielema's plan, but now he knows what to expect in the SEC and is working to implement changes that could get the Hogs program back on the right track. That needs to happen in a hurry, because Year 3 is looming in 2015, and it could be an important one for Bielema in Fayetteville.

After all, it is the magic number.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com.

 


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