Arkansas' Bret Bielema talks like SEC coach -- can he win like one?

HOOVER, Ala. -- Bret Bielema has followed Steps 1-3 in the SEC First-Year Coaches Handbook.

  1. Disagree with an opposing coach.
  2. Do so while marking your territory, particularly in an important recruiting area, sort of making it personal.
  3. Hope you can back it up.

Arkansas’ coach essentially did all of this in his SEC media days debut on Wednesday, offering a potent response to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn over Bielema’s theory that no-huddle offenses increase the risk of injuries on the field.

The CliffsNotes version: Malzhan said early Wednesday that he thought the theory was a "joke," doesn’t believe in it, thinks defensive players need to stop faking injuries to slow offenses.

When told of Malzhan’s “joke” from the podium, Bielema said, “I’m not a comedian” and stressed his safety concerns.

A few hours earlier, Bielema said of Malzahn: “Obviously, Gus is an educated man and he’s got his own faith and belief, but what I said I didn’t just throw that out there. … They [Auburn] may not be concerned about the defensive players, but I’m concerned about all the players on the field."

Perhaps the safety debate will continue, but what’s clear is the Tigers and Razorbacks coaches just deepened the intrigue for that Nov. 2 matchup in Fayetteville. Not that these barbs were scripted, but consider that Malzahn has roots in Arkansas, where Bielema needs to protect his recruiting area. These are not coaches lending entertaining quotes but two rival neighborhood leaders staking turf.

Bielema’s three Big Ten titles at Wisconsin won’t earn him instant SEC street cred, but he’s embracing the SEC way early and often.

Long-time SEC media figure Paul Finebaum told me that though Bielema is widely considered a good coach, having three or six or 12 Big Ten rings “doesn’t resonate in the land of Saban.” 

You could argue that the positive reception around Arkansas’ stealth hire of Bielema in early December lends credence to his Big Ten championship pedigree, but even Bielema admits, “I’m sure everybody has their own opinion on what [the Big Ten rep] means.”

While making the rounds during what was considered one of the most entertaining sessions this week, Bielema -- once a critic of the SEC while with the Badgers -- said he was a closet SEC fan before joining.

But when the league releases its media-picked preseason honors this week, Arkansas will likely rank toward the bottom of the SEC West. So much for that pedigree.

The league is sleeping on Arkansas so much, Bielema pointed out a snoozing reporter in the front row while on the podium (no, really).

The Razorbacks lose playmakers Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton, Dennis Johnson, Knile Davis -- and that’s just on offense. Despite defensive line depth, Arkansas didn’t inherit a stockpiled defense thanks to Bobby Petrino’s offensive-minded recruiting.

If those factors result in a low preseason ranking, then Bielema would have his way.  “The lower the better,” Bielema said. “I think our team is carrying a tremendous chip on their shoulder. … We have players you’ve never even heard of that are coming at you.”

Bielema said he flourishes in situations “where people think very little of us,” a mantra that his players -- who are going on a third coach in three years -- seem to embrace.

Though they don’t think less of Bielema’s track record.

“You go to three straight Rose Bowls, you take notice,” said senior fullback Kiero Small.

Last year’s 4-8 Arkansas team was second-to-last nationally in turnover margin at minus-19. Bielema’s run-heavy system aims to change that.

Most understand the patience required with implementing a new offensive system, two new coordinators and a new quarterback (Brandon Allen).

Bielema’s legacy hinges largely on how he recruits, as Twitter recently told him.

Bielema said he got a few recent Twitter responses from fans concerned about the team’s 2014 rankings (71st nationally, according to 247Sports).

Bielema responded with a Wisconsin anecdote. One of his first Badgers classes ranked in the high 60s but eventually helped win the first of three Big Ten titles.

Basically, he’s asking his fans for trust, one tweet at a time.

“I know where we’re going. I know how we get there,” Bielema said. “I’m excited because I think this group right now has no plans about five years down the road. They are worried about right now.”

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