And one of the worst things Razorback fans can do for themselves right now is compare Bret Bielema to the other new SEC coaches. It’s an inaccurate, unfair comparison, and it’s one that will only take Hog fans to an even higher level of despondent insanity.
Simply comparing the performances of teams with new head coaches like they all started with a blank slate is superficial. Whenever a new coach takes on a new program, the coach always inherits whatever the last guy left behind. Every program is a different situation.
Kevin Sumlin inherited a very talented team at Texas A&M. Remember how the Aggies blew all those halftime leads in 2011? Then he was the beneficiary of grooming a lightly recruited high school quarterback who turned out to be one of the best ever in college football. It’s literally nothing like Arkansas’ roster situation. The Razorback quarterbacks were also lightly recruited (although higher-rated), but they’re as far away from Johnny Manziel as humility.
Sure, Hugh Freeze has done a great job at Ole Miss. But that first year turnaround many fawn over? He took advantage of historically awful Arkansas and Auburn teams and beat Mississippi State. The other three wins came against cupcakes. He hardly lit the world on fire. Freeze was able to follow that up with a good recruiting class and now they’re a respectable program. However, they, like Arkansas, were still shut out against Alabama. Although they allowed about half the points Arkansas allowed.
Gus Malzahn is really a first year coach in name only, considering his heavy involvement in putting that roster together as the offensive coordinator. Because of that fact, many people suspected he’d see the most immediate success of any of the new coaches. This would be like Arkansas’ situation if Bielema was a Petrino assistant and spent three years putting his type of players on Arkansas’ roster, and now those players are ready to go for him. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but the only players Bielema put on Arkansas’ roster are the true freshmen and the few junior college players he signed. The remaining 75%-ish of the roster were recruited for a different type of football. Clearly an unusual, foreign type.
And don’t forget what happened to Malzahn in 2011 when Auburn had to rely on a bad quarterback. They were mediocre only because of a good running game, and were putrid in 2012. Not even the Great Gus could turn Kiehl Frazier into a competent SEC quarterback. Malzahn even moved Frazier from quarterback to safety and then to wide receiver this season.
Over in Knoxville, the Volunteers are just now peeking over the sheets to make sure it’s alright to come play. They’ve gone through a longer period of horrendous play and bad luck than Arkansas has, but even though they were blown out by Alabama by just slightly less than Arkansas was, they’re proving to be capable of overcoming those embarrassments. For all of Derek Dooley’s faults, and there were plenty, he typically recruited pretty well. There is some talent at Tennessee. They nearly beat Georgia in the game when something like half of the Bulldogs’ two-deep left for injury, then they upset South Carolina at home the week after the Gamecocks wiped the floor with the Hogs.
And, frankly, Arkansas should have been able to compete with South Carolina. There’s no reason they couldn’t have done what Tennessee did. I’m not sure that people completely understand just how historically awful that game was. We can understand the shoddy recruiting, the lack of talent at certain positions, and all the rest, but Arkansas didn’t have to make South Carolina look like Alabama. I’m not saying Arkansas should have won the game, but they should have competed. The fact that they didn’t is on the current players and the current coaches. If you want to compare the way Butch Jones’ team competed against South Carolina to the way Bielema’s team competed against them, I think that’s fair.
This was never the type of rebuilding job that would be a one-year, instant fix type of job. Even if a spread coach like Malzahn was running the team, the talent level simply isn’t there. 2013 was expected to be a down year, even before the 2012 collapse. Most of the top defensive talent from the 21-5 run left after the Cotton Bowl and most of the offensive talent left after last year. And typically, the coach will get a chance to rebuild his own roster, but because Petrino left in such a truly unique fashion, Bielema is left to deal with the fallout immediately following the loss of all of those talented players, and rebound the program from whatever is just above “scratch.”
Don’t worry about first years. First-year coaches just do the best they can with what they’ve been left. The success of a coach is determined by how he builds and maintains the program. We all know this is true because Houston Nutt had a really successful first year. Twice.