BELLA VISTA — Preseason prognosticators have predominantly pronounced Arkansas as a program rebuilding under new coach Bret Bielema in 2013.
The reasons are clear: Arkansas went 4-8 last season and are moving on without 2013 NFL Draft picks Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis, Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg. They’re transitioning to a new style of play, trading in a pass-happy attack for a rough and rugged run-oriented approach. And then there’s the challenging schedule.
So Bielema understands getting less-than-impressive predictions. But he also said Friday they make him think back to his first season at Wisconsin.
“I had some similar comments, thought it would be tough for Wisconsin to transition into my leadership,” Bielema said about 2007, when he took over for Barry Alvarez.
“We went 12-1 and played pretty well. Again, I don't worry too much at all about what other people say about us. I worry more about what our players talk about, what I talk about. And that's the part I hold dear to my heart.”
Bielema spoke about his expectations for 2013, among other topics, before participating in the Northwest Arkansas Razorback Clubs’ Celebrity Golf Scramble in Bella Vista on Friday. The event, which originally was canceled in May because of wet weather, took place roughly 10 weeks before the start of the 2013 season.
It also came in the middle of the long summer, where prognostications and projections dominate conversation. USA Today, which is profiling one college football team each day until the start of the season, ranked Arkansas 83rd out of 125 Football Championship Subdivision programs earlier this week. The preview also described six wins and bowl eligibility as a “dream season” for the Hogs.
“Welcome to the definition of a rebuilding season: Arkansas has a new staff, new philosophies, new personnel at several key spots and one of the toughest schedules imaginable,” a USA Today preview of the Razorbacks read. “What else could happen but a season with no more than four wins? Get ready, because here it comes.”
It’s the same sentiment in Athlon’s magazine, which polled SEC coaches anonymously about other teams. A coach asked about Arkansas offered a blunt assessment of what Bielema and the Razorbacks could be facing in the fall.
“They have a long ways to go,” the anonymous SEC coach told Athlon’s. “That’s nothing against the new coaching staff. But they are going to be terrible in Year 1.”
Bielema, who said he was made aware of the comments and projections, acknowledged the season won’t be easy as Arkansas adapts to its new identity. But he’s not listening to the notion Arkansas will miss a bowl game once again.
One of his reasons? It has never happened during his seven years as a head coach.
“I would say this: I really pride myself and I think our staff takes a lot of pride in we get better every day,” Bielema said. “We'll take on our opener and we'll get where we're at at the end of that game and figure out where we're going game two. …
“Whether I'm here two years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, someone asks me how do you define the season, my answer will never change. It's you get better every week. You put your best players in position to have success. And at the end of the year you look back at your totals and see where you're at.”
Arkansas faces a big challenge, though, because of a schedule rated as one of the nation’s toughest. Nine opponents reached bowl games last season and the Hogs face five of them on the road (Rutgers, Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU).
Arkansas will have inexperienced players at key positions, too, beginning with quarterback Brandon Allen and running back Jonathan Williams. There are questions at linebacker and the offensive line, which wasn’t regarded as a strong run-blocking group under former coach Bobby Petrino’s staff the past few years.
All are challenges. But Bielema said he and the Hogs will embrace the underdog role.
“I get it,” Bielema said. “I understand from the outside world looking in how that perception is there with a new head coach and all the transition. We lost a lot of really good players. But I was emphatic, especially when I knew I had 20 seniors in that room to begin with in December, that I didn't want it to be a rebuilding.”