Bret Bielema's Arkansas Razorbacks Are the SEC's Sleeper Team of 2014

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterSeptember 25, 2014

AP Images

For a moment this week, Bret Bielema’s main concern wasn’t the vaunted Texas A&M passing attack or a division ripe with ranked teams and College Football Playoff hopefuls. It was a stray Popeyes' chicken box—along with a harmless, nameless bag of Chinese food—that he stumbled upon after practice.

“This isn’t smorgasbord central here,” Bielema bellowed to his players. “If you want to eat our meals, that’s fine, but I don’t need to see things lying all over the counter. Nothing against Popeyes and nothing against Chinese food, but it wasn’t on the menu.”

Now, no one hates Popeyes. And a stray box of delicious fried chicken remnants—by Bielema’s own admission—pales in comparison to more pressing football matters. The same can be said about the team’s noticeably improved attire on game days, a movement that Bielema spoke of like a proud father.

Takeout boxes and pristine Windsor knots won’t make Kevin Sumlin’s offense any less diabolical. It won’t make the SEC West any less immortal than it looks right now. But the fact that Bielema is able to speak of these minute matters rather than massive fundamental cracks in the foundation—issues that plagued his team all last season—highlight how far this program has come in relatively short order.

As a result, the SEC West—college football’s most powerful sector—has been put on notice for the foreseeable future. Arkansas, in unfamiliar fashion, is leading that charge.

It's not Nick Saban. It's not Gus Malzahn. You know plenty about these coaches and teams already. It's the program that was given no real expectations to perform—the one poised to grow the most.

“We’re probably still another recruiting class away with the offensive line,” Bielema said. “We need depth at fullback, tight end and wide receivers to get to where we need to be and operated as efficiently as I’d like. But we’re definitely stepping in the right direction.”

It is by no means perfect. It will remain a work in progress that will take years to fully complete, but the Razorbacks’ surge speaks more to the vast weaponry in the SEC West than the familiar rank-friendly brands—teams like Alabama and Auburn, for starters.

The bottom is pushing the top, and thus, we’re left with a football picture the likes of which we haven’t seen. Arkansas, meanwhile, is trying to avoid being the odd man out for much longer.

“I’m very aware that we’re the only team in the SEC West that isn’t ranked. I get that,” Bielema said. “We haven’t done anything to deserve that. But you’re beginning to establish some value to your name that has nothing to do with dollars; it has to do with what people are saying about you. We will earn what we get this Saturday by what we do this week.”

The Beautiful Destruction of the SEC West

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Oftentimes when we assess a division’s true worth, we begin at the summit. You start with the Florida States, Oregons and Alabamas of the world and work your way downward, making stops along the way to point out various imperfections.

As you make your way to the deepest depths of these groupings, you are left with logos that are there to simply take up space. These aren’t nearly as important as the checkmarks you crossed off to get here, because after all, someone has to be on the bottom.

In the instance of the SEC West, however, let’s start at the floor and work our way in reverse order. As you evaluate the current standings, you should recognize one glaring difference.

Current SEC West Standings
TeamRecordConference RecordAP Top 25 Ranking
Texas A&M4-01-0No. 6
Alabama4-01-0No. 3
Auburn3-01-0No. 5
Ole Miss3-01-0No. 10
Mississippi State4-01-0No. 14
Arkansas3-10-1Unranked
LSU3-10-1No. 17
Source: ESPN.com

The current cellar team, LSU, has anything but a cellar reputation. It also has a rank in The AP Top 25, which you can evaluate as you will. The only team without a spot in The AP Top 25—or in this instance, the Top 17—is Arkansas.

“It might blow someone’s mind who isn’t involved in it,” Bielema said on the state of the division. “But for those of us who see it on a daily basis it really isn’t all that amazing.”

Arkansas will unquestionably rid itself of that dreaded “unranked” label if it can deliver an upset on Saturday. To do so, it will have to conquer Texas A&M as a 10-point underdog, according to Odds Shark.

Although sportsbooks have A&M as a substantial favorite, they’ve also had to alter their expectations of the Hogs a month into the season. Golden Nugget oddsmaker Aaron Kessler provided perspective on what this team would look like operating in a different climate.

“There are only two—maybe three—teams in the Big Ten I would have favored over Arkansas regardless of where they played,” Kessler said. “Those teams are Michigan State, Wisconsin and perhaps Nebraska. In the ACC, Arkansas would be favored against every team except Florida State and Clemson.

For those keeping track, that means Arkansas would be favored over preseason playoff favorite Ohio State. 

“I like them. They impressed some people with that Texas Tech win. It’s not just the numbers but how dominant they have looked.”

This isn’t your average bottom dweller: a break from the normal top-heavy presentation found in just about every division—including the SEC’s far less successful twin brother.

In terms of evaluating the SEC West, Kessler sees the same thing you do. The only difference is he has to craft point spreads and assess value with enormous financial implications hanging in the balance.

“It's not even close,” Kessler said on ranking divisions. “I'd go SEC West followed by a big gap until I got to the Pac-12 North, SEC East and the Pac-12 South.”

The SEC's Most Dangerous Bottom Feeder

Danny Johnston/Associated Press

The expectations have shifted. Arkansas, thought to be a pseudo bye week for most SEC teams, has vigor. The Hogs won’t be favored in the majority of their games, but with their unique rushing attack, they’ll be an enormous nuisance at the bare minimum.

Through four games, the Razorbacks are averaging 7.13 yards per carry, which is good for fourth nationally. The 1,298 rushing yards are good for fifth in the nation, and the 17 rushing touchdowns are second overall.

Arkansas Rushing Statistics From 2014
OpponentTotal Rushing yardsYards Per CarryRushing Touchdowns
Auburn1535.31
Nicholls State49512.46
Texas tech4386.47
Northern Illinois2124.73
Source: ESPN.com

This incredible production hasn’t exactly come against brick walls. Outside of Auburn, the competition has been relatively average. Arkansas has played a much better schedule than most, although the Hogs should have rushing success against programs such as Texas Tech or Northern Illinois.

They’ve done much more than that, though. Arkansas ran for 650 yards the past two weeks combined, which has prompted the sudden re-evaluation and timeline adjustments.

For Bielema, the praise that has come with encouraging early returns clashes somewhat with his personal expectations of what a vibrant football program should look like.

“I hope that someday beating Northern Illinois isn’t really a big deal,” Bielema said. “It was a big deal because we hadn’t won at home, but it’s a team that we should expect to have success on.”

The rest of the schedule—in particular the next month—is a different story. Arkansas’s expectations will be reset one way or another with games against Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia on deck. There is also another opponent included in this stretch, one Bielema wasted little time highlighting when pressed about the difficulty ahead.

Danny Johnston/Associated Press

“There’s a little bye week in there,” Bielema pointed out with a smile when pressed about navigating the minefield.

Indeed there is. Arkansas will catch its breath following this weekend’s game at AT&T Stadium before gearing up for a final run that stretches out over two months.

The rest of the SEC West has a similar turbulent path. The only difference, however, is many of these programs were counting on Arkansas to provide a convenient tally in the win column. That’s no longer the case, and it’s why the SEC West will deliver heavyweight fights each and every weekend for the foreseeable future.

The hierarchy in the division will undergo some movement this weekend, regardless of the result. An impressive Texas A&M victory could propel the Aggies into a new expectation threshold. A surprising Arkansas victory—or even a solid performance in an "almost" effort—would push the bottom of that conference closer to the top, widening that gap between it and every other division.

“A win would probably justify in our guys’ minds that as long as they keep doing the things we ask them to do—offensively, defensively, special teams and what we ask them to do in the weight room and the classroom—you’ll have success,” Bielema said. “And in the SEC, it doesn’t come easy.”

It comes in the form of a box of chicken. Or a perfectly ironed shirt. Or the little things that the program suddenly has the luxury of addressing because it is taking care of everything else, one missed arm tackle at a time.

There is tremendous work still to be done and progress to be made. But after a year defined by negative headlines and losses, Bielema has legitimized his program and, in turn, made the nation’s most terrifying group of teams even more so from the bottom up.

And the best part is he’s only getting started.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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