Fayetteville, Arkansas, is a great college town. You can walk down Dickson Street on a spring day and enjoy the atmosphere, take a few steps off Dickson and stop into Hammontree for a gourmet grilled cheese or have a frothy cappuccino at Arsag. Or, if you prefer to tour the area on the Baker Mayfield plan, you can start later and party stronger.
The surroundings — the Ozarks, the Buffalo River — are beautiful and hikable. The campus area and the student body combine several elements, from true Midwestern to Austin-style hippie funkiness.
But let’s make no mistake about it — Arkansas is an SEC town, a good expansion fit for 25 years now. It’s not Oberlin, or Cal-Santa Cruz. Football matters there and, as Bret Bielema enters his fifth year as the head coach of the Razorbacks, one suspects we are going to find out just how much it matters. There is concern, not just in Fayetteville but across the state — a state that has no other NFL team or Power 5 conference football program — about whether Arkansas football is really any closer to relevance than it was when Bielema was hired in 2013.
Bielema was no random choice when he was brought in to scrub away the Bobby Petrino/John L. Smith collapse that had seen the Razorbacks plummet from huge expectations (there was talk of a Top 10 season before Petrino was caught in an off-the-field scandal that led to his departure.) The Arkansas administration looked at it this way, with some prompting from Bielema himself. Taking over for Barry Alvarez, Bielema had led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls. He ascended to the top of the Big Ten by building tough, physical, run-oriented teams at a program with (like Arkansas) tradition and (like Arkansas) state-wide support and (like Arkansas) no history of out-recruiting the power programs in the conference (Ohio State and Michigan, mainly.) If it could happen with Badgers, why couldn’t the same approach work at Arkansas?
The difference was that the athletes at Ohio State and Michigan, particularly five years ago, weren’t quite the same thing as the athletes in the SEC, especially at Alabama and LSU. Those teams were also committed to physical football and were implementing that plan with physical freaks. Thus, Arkansas was caught trying to build one with one style and survive with another — which brings us to SEC Media Days on Monday.
Bielema, who seems like a jolly guy, caught attention with a new baby back home and a butt-dialing story (to the SEC Commissioner) that drew some laughs. But he’s also got to do something about an overall 10-22 SEC record and a fizzle (losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech) in the final two games of 2016, scuttling any momentum coming into the spring.
“Obviously, the end of last season was a unique situation for me,” Bielema said in Birmingham. “In fact, even when we went 3-9 (in 2013), I felt at the end of the year we were … moving in the right direction. And last year, our last two games were not highlights, especially the way they both ended.”
Bielema cited “internal changes” and proclaimed the Arkansas players “have been great” in the off-season. Still, the Razorbacks don’t have the look of a juggernaut. They will rely on quarterback Austin Allen, who threw for 400 yards against Alabama last year, to put up points and hope that will help a defense that has to make some progress in stopping the run against quality teams.
If not, we may not get a live update on Baby Bielema’s first birthday at the 2018 SEC Media Days, unless the Arkansas administration is exceedingly patient — or Bielema accidentally butt-dials the next Arkansas coach at the podium.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.