Over the next several weeks, we will be catching up with the coaches preparing for their first season in a new location and/or role. From recruiting to staff moves and personnel decisions, we will take a look at how the first months have gone and preview the 2013 season ahead. Today's subject: Arkansas coach Bret Bielema.
Coaching experience: Seven years (68-24 overall) with back-to-back-to-back Big Ten championships (2010-12) and two other double-digit win seasons at Wisconsin. Badgers are his only previous head coaching position.
Reason for the change: Left adrift by Bobby Petrino's motorcycle fallout (and John L. Smith's disastrous audition season), Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long shrewdly used his extra season of coaching-search preparation to bag the biggest coup of the 2012-13 offseason. Bielema has cited the inability to pay -- and retain -- his assistants at full market value at Wisconsin (and within the Big Ten) as a reason he took the Arkansas position. But given Bielema's outsized personality, it seems likely the allure of proving himself against the likes of Nick Saban, Les Miles and the rest of the SEC played a role, too.
The First Months
2013 Recruiting Class Ranking (according to 247 Sports composite rankings): No. 24 nationally, No. 10 in the SEC.
Notable Prospects: The uncertainty hanging over the program in 2012 left Bielema with some catching up to do, but the hire of former Miami head coach Randy Shannon helped the Hogs land one of the prize jewels of signing day, five-star Miami-area tailback Alex Collins. Miami product Denver Kirkland should be a big addition at guard, too.
Off-field: Bielema wasted no time showing that being the new kid on the block wasn't going to curb his outspoken nature, tossing a jab in the direction of none other than Saban at a Razorback fan gathering in March. He has also taken the rare step of directly responding to his (many) critics on Twitter. In general, Bielema has shown a fair amount of swagger for someone who has never coached a game for any team other than the Badgers ...
Fan reaction: ... but that has been A-OK with Razorback fans, who, of course, have heartily welcomed a coach publicly unafraid of the SEC West powers-that-be. Bluster wasn't Petrino's style, but it's a particularly appealing trait nonetheless for Hog fans after Smith's near-comic ineptness both on the field and in the media. It hasn't hurt that Bielema has been effusive in his thanks to the Arkansas administration (most notably for helping him secure raises -- yes, already -- for sought-after assistants) and has seemed entirely genuine in his attempts to win over the Razorback faithful.
Advantages: A thin in-state recruiting base (by SEC standards, at least) means that pulling in recruits from outside the Hogs' local footprint is a must, and the hire of assistants like Shannon was a huge step in the right direction; those connections plus Bielema's charisma should give the new staff the talent to compete in the SEC West over the long term. While Bielema's preferred pro-style, ground-and-pound approach won't be new to the league, some of his wrinkles -- the kind that nearly won Montee Ball the Heisman -- will be. And his overwhelming devotion to the run game should be an asset in a conference that's slowly trending towards a more open offensive philosophy. The stocked offensive line cupboard that Petrino left behind ought to help, too.
Toughest challenge: Bielema's reputation for fielding stingy defenses is mostly earned, but the truth is that his clock-devouring offenses also made his Badgers look a little better statistically than they actually were. In terms of yards per-play allowed, Wisconsin finished second in the Big Ten in 2012 -- but seventh, fifth, fourth, fifth and ninth the previous five seasons. That's not bad, but it's not great, either. And now Bielema and defensive coordinator Chris Ash have to teach a new set of schemes to a defense that's short on playmakers, long on breakdowns and hasn't been any better than mediocre since at least the Houston Nutt era. It's going to take some outstanding defensive coaching to get the 2013 Razorbacks on steady footing and arguably even better coaching to get future versions up to SEC championship caliber. Are Bielema and Ash capable of pulling that off? The jury remains out.
2013 Outlook: The good news for Bielema is that he has a strong foundation to build on along both sides of the line of scrimmage; guards Mitch Smothers and Brey Cook and senior center Travis Swenson form one the SEC's best and most experienced interior offensive lines. And with a little better technique and focus, senior tackles Byran Jones and Robert Thomas should make an excellent tandem in the middle of the Hog rush defense. But there are question marks basically everywhere else, starting with new quarterback Brandon Allen. If Collins is the proverbial real deal and Allen can keep defenses even semi-honest, the line should open up enough running lanes to make the Hogs an offensive threat. But it's likely going to take more than one offseason for the defense to dig itself out of the crater left in Petrino's/Smith's wake. Against a brutal schedule featuring a road date at Rutgers and SEC East crossover dates with Florida and South Carolina, those issues spell five losses at least.
Patience, in other words, will be required.