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Bret Bielema's Arkansas brand is strong, but where are the wins?

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“How are the Razorbacks doing?” is one of college football’s trickiest questions heading into 2017.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi State Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

How should we judge how a coach is doing?

We know how fans do it. It’s a combination of wins, rivalry wins, linear improvement, and how often his offensive coordinator calls the touchdown play. We don’t deal well with setbacks, and we don’t tolerate much context. And the short-term fan view probably isn’t something the long-term administrator should use.

(Of course, it’s hard to ignore this view when the richer fans threaten to remove their support if said offensive coordinator doesn’t call said touchdown play more often.)

I ask this because I’m finding it difficult to evaluate how Bret Bielema is doing.

Bielema has brought a strange stability to a program that lived in an all-or-nothing universe.

From 2004-13, Arkansas became one of the most volatile programs you'll ever see. The Razorbacks had three top-15 finishes and 10-win campaigns in this span; they also went 5-7 or worse five times. They averaged seven wins per year without ever actually winning seven games in a year.

Bielema has gone 7-6, 8-5, and 7-6 the last three years. The first seven-win season was unlucky, and the second was lucky, but steady it has been.

After a first-year reset, Bielema has fielded, per S&P+, a top-10 defense, a top-10 offense, and two top-20 teams. Granted, he hasn't gotten both sides of the ball figured out simultaneously — his defense surged while his offense occasionally labored, then his offense surged as his defense regressed — but the spikes have been impressive.

Bielema has established a true brand, which is hard to do in college football. He called one of his team’s best performances, the 2014 Texas Bowl romp over Texas, “borderline erotic” in the way that the Razorbacks dominated the clock (41 minutes of possession) and played impossibly physical football. He recruits the meatiest linemen and builds his team’s identity from there.

Actually, let’s back up. This is an identity he has sold.

He would be well-served to better establish it.

His identity has been one of a powerful run game that keeps the chains moving with efficient rushing and girth in short yardage. This style will supposedly wear teams down and allow you to control the late stages of a game. But practice doesn’t match theory:

  • In four years, Bielema's Hogs are 6-12 in games decided by one possession. They were 0-7 in his first two years and have improved to 6-5, a smidge over .500.
  • Last year, they ranked 74th in Rushing S&P+, and that was bolstered by explosive plays. They were dreadful at staying ahead of the chains on the ground: 102nd in rushing success rate, 109th in stuff rate, and 128th in power success rate. Out of 128 teams.
  • Dear lord, was Arkansas an awful second-half team last year. On offense, the Razorbacks were third in first-quarter S&P+, 14th in the second quarter, 119th in the third, and 57th in the fourth. The defense was below average in every quarter but hit rock bottom at 107th in the fourth quarter. They outscored opponents by 87 in the first half and got outscored by 100 in the second. They led Missouri 24-7 at halftime and led Virginia Tech 21-0; they lost both games.

Despite the identity, Bielema's best moments have come when he had an unstoppable passing attack (first in Passing S&P+ in 2015) and a reckless defense (seventh in Def. S&P+ and havoc rate in 2014).

If the Hogs end up really good in 2017, it could be because of those things. Quarterback Austin Allen returns for his senior season after flashes of brilliant play (22nd in Passing S&P+, 3,430 passing yards, 14 yards per completion).

Meanwhile, after watching his defense slip to the mid-60s in Def. S&P+ for two straight years, Bielema brought in coordinator Paul Rhoads. Rhoads couldn’t bring enough talent to Ames as former Iowa State head coach, but he had a few strong defenses at ISU and was a tremendous coordinator under Dave Wannstedt (whom I must point out was also awful in close finishes) at Pitt.

Will they be able to run the ball, though? They lost their best running back (Rawleigh Williams III) and best lineman (left tackle Dan Skipper), and while just about everybody else in those two units returns, it’s counterproductive to lose your best pieces while trying to restore a run game that slumped so thoroughly.

If the run game isn’t better, will the Hogs suffer the same fate as the last few years, putting themselves within shouting distance of great but settling for solid? And if that happens again, at what point does Arkansas decide that’s all Bielema’s going to do?


2016 in review

2016 Arkansas statistical profile.

The record has been steady, but that was about the only thing you could label with that word in 2016. The Razorbacks’ brilliant performances were as brilliant as ever — 97th percentile in a 31-10 win over Florida, 89th in a 42-3 win over Texas State, 84th in a 58-42 win over Mississippi State — but each seemed to be preceded or followed by a drastic letdown.

Following the Texas State win, the Razorbacks hit only the 33rd percentile in a 45-24 loss to Texas A&M. Before the win over Florida was a humiliating, eighth-percentile, 56-3 loss at Auburn. And following A&M was a 30th-percentile performance in a 38-10 loss to LSU.

At the end of the year, the Razorbacks squeezed both the brilliance and the letdowns into single games. The season had seen them blow a 13-point halftime lead against TCU before they rallied to win in overtime, and the A&M letdown happened all after halftime (it was 17-17 at half). But the first halves of the Missouri and Virginia Tech games were sheer dominance; the second halves were dreck.

If the Razorbacks end up strong again in 2017, we’ll say 2016 was a product of youth. Allen was taking over for his brother Brandon at quarterback, and the run game was learning to live without 2015 leading rusher Alex Collins and three long-term starting linemen. The defense was too experienced to get away with stagnation, but if the offense had a few more tricks up its sleeve, maybe that would have chased away the second-half demons.

Maybe they’ll have those tricks this year?


Offense

Arkansas offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

That chart almost couldn’t stray further from the Bielema brand. The Razorbacks were run-heavy on standard downs but awful at actually generating standard-downs yardage. Allen, however, was capable of occasional passing downs brilliance — he had a 170.7 passer rating on second downs, and while he completed just 43 percent of his passes on third-and-4 or longer, 28 of his 37 completions in those situations generated first downs.

If the run still hasn’t completely clicked, maybe Arkansas should give Allen more passes in friendlier downs and distances.

NCAA Football: Florida at Arkansas
Devwah Whaley
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, the run might click. As strong as Williams was, his per-carry production was almost duplicated by true freshman backup Devwah Whaley. The blue-chipper averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in his first four games and had just five carries for one yard in the bowl game. But in between that, he averaged 65 yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry. He carried 19 times for 112 yards in the shootout win over MSU.

If Whaley continues to develop (as most sophomores do), he could be tremendous. And in that way, the loss of Williams might be about the loss of Whaley as a second-stringer — do the Hogs have a decent backup? Bielema yanked South Carolina graduate transfer David Williams away from UConn at the last minute, but Williams has yet to prove himself to any major degree. And if he doesn’t stick on the second string, it’ll likely be high-three-star freshman Chase Hayden.

If Whaley gets hurt, the Arkansas run game is every bit as iffy as it was. But with Whaley perhaps growing more consistent (only 39 percent of his carries gained at least five yards, slightly below the national average), perhaps the line will take a step too. Six linemen return with starting experience, and young four-stars like sophomore Jalen Merrick and redshirt freshman Jake Heinrich are waiting for their turn in the rotation.

Those short-yardage numbers, though. Yuck. Even considering youth, there’s no excuse for a team this big, with this many former star recruits, to rank last in short-yardage execution. This offense can’t approach its ceiling if the Hogs don’t improve to at least average in this regard.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas
Jared Cornelius
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

There’s another reason why Arkansas will need its run game to be more consistent: a brand new receiving corps.

Six of last year’s top eight targets are gone, including a pair of 700-yard receivers in Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher. Hatcher and fellow departee Dominique Reed combined to average 16.6 yards per catch, and half of Hatcher’s 44 catches gained at least 15 yards.

I’ve written quite a bit on the effects of continuity in the receiving corps. Your percentage of returning production at receiver has as much of an impact on your overall S&P+ ratings as any other production category. But if you’re an Arkansas fan looking for a reason why the Hogs may be able to buck this trend, you’ve got evidence.

First, there’s Allen. He looked every bit as effective as his brother at times and could be ready for high-caliber play no matter who he’s throwing to.

Beyond that, you’ve still got senior receiver Jared Cornelius, who led the receiving corps with 10.7 yards per target and produced a solid 52 percent success rate. You’ve got some high-ceiling youngsters: Whaley could be a home run hitter on check downs, four-star sophomore tight end Cheyenne O’Grady had three catches for 63 yards over the last three games, and sophomore La’Michael Pettway and freshman Koilan Jackson have been early fall camp stars thus far.

So yeah, the potential may be as high as ever. But having this many new pieces is a recipe for massive inconsistency.

Defense

Arkansas defensive radar

You never know for sure how a guy will do in returning to an old role. The game has changed enough that Rhoads is not automatically going to do great things for Arkansas simply because he fielded some fantastic Pitt defenses between 2000-07, and simply because he was able to drag a two-deep of low-three-star recruits to three straight Def. S&P+ top-50 performances (2010-12).

At the least, though, you know why he might do well. Lord knows the bar’s low at the moment.

Arkansas defensive efficiency and explosiveness

After ranking seventh in Def. S&P+ in 2014, the Razorbacks slumped to 65th in 2015 and 64th in 2016. The 2016 unit rushed the passer pretty well (45th in Adj. Sack Rate) while doing a reasonable job of preventing big pass plays. They got their hands on a lot of passes — 39 percent of opponents’ incompletions were due to either an interception or breakup, 14th in the country. That Rhoads was Arkansas’ DB coach last year is maybe a good sign, then.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Arkansas
McTelvin Agim
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest story for this defense in 2017 is not the change in coordinator; it’s the change in structure. Bielema requested a move to a 3-4 defense, in part because “you naturally become more athletic with eight guys on their feet.

You could assert that he made the move because he has a lot more natural linebackers than linemen. Five of last year’s top six linemen are gone, though there’s plenty of potential among the returnees. Sophomore blue-chipper McTelvin Agim could develop into something spectacular, giant senior Bijhon Jackson is a decent play-maker for his size, and fellow sophomores Austin Capps and T.J. Smith combined for three tackles for loss in backup duty. Plus, there seems to be enough size to translate from 4-3 to 3-4 — at 339 pounds and semi-agile, Jackson is a custom-made two-gap nose tackle, and Agim, Capps, and Smith are all at least 286 pounds. Still, that’s a lot of turnover.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi State
Ryan Pulley
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

If the line holds up, you can see a lot of other pieces falling into place. Six of last year’s top seven linebackers return, including junior Randy Ramsey, who was maybe the Hogs’ best play-making linebacker. At 6’4, 228 pounds, he looks the part of a 3-4 outside linebacker. And perhaps a slight shift in responsibilities will create play-makers out of guys like Dwayne Eugene, Dre Greenlaw, and De’Jon Harris, who played lots of snaps but didn’t do a ton with them.

Arkansas also returns one of two disruptive corners — Jared Collins had 12 passes defensed but departed; Ryan Pulley had 15 and returns — and basically every safety. That’s could give Rhoads confidence to attack up front. And if the DBs only occasionally get burned, it might be worth it.


Special Teams

Arkansas had bailouts in place for its inefficient run game. Allen was pretty good on passing downs, and punter Toby Baker basically provided an extra half a first down with each punt. Baker ranked fourth in the county in punt efficiency, averaging 44.4 yards per kick and allowing returns on only 18 of 57 punts.

Baker’s now gone, which — combined with the turnover in the receiving corps — takes the training wheels off for Whaley and company.

Without Baker, Arkansas’ special teams were hit and miss. Connor Limpert’s kickoffs rarely resulted in touchbacks, and Deon Stewart’s kick returns were inconsistent, but Cole Hedlund was a decent place-kicker, and Jared Cornelius was strong in punt returns. They’re all back.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Florida A&M NR 54.4 100%
9-Sep TCU 21 -1.8 46%
23-Sep vs. Texas A&M 19 -4.8 39%
30-Sep New Mexico State 124 27.0 94%
7-Oct at South Carolina 36 -0.7 48%
14-Oct at Alabama 1 -27.9 5%
21-Oct Auburn 9 -8.9 30%
28-Oct at Ole Miss 26 -4.7 39%
4-Nov Coastal Carolina 114 23.6 91%
11-Nov at LSU 4 -17.2 16%
18-Nov Mississippi State 30 2.5 56%
25-Nov Missouri 53 7.2 66%
Projected S&P+ Rk 32
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 29 / 51
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.0 (32)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 26 / 31
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / 3.1
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (55%, 58%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.6 (1.4)

After rousing success in his first year at Wisconsin, Bielema hit a funk. His Badgers fell from 12-1 to 9-4 in 2007, then to 7-6 in 2008, and with the standard Barry Alvarez had set, there pressure was growing. Bielema responded with a 10-3 2009 and then went to three straight Rose Bowls, with two top-10 finishes. His record in one-possession games, meanwhile, oscillated drastically: 6-0, then 2-5, then 10-2, then 3-9.

Don’t count Bielema out just because he’s hit a frustrating patch, in other words.

Bielema’s timing hasn’t been right yet. For all we know, it might never be right, but it’s not hard to see Arkansas putting all the pieces together soon. The main problem: the prevalence of big-time underclassmen suggests a team-wide surge in 2018, but since Allen’s a senior, this surge would coincide with a new QB.

But we’ll talk about 2018 in 2018. For now, you’re looking at a team that is projected 32nd overall in S&P+, with two likely losses (at Alabama, at LSU), a probable loss (Auburn), three slam-dunk wins (Florida A&M, NMSU, Coastal Carolina) ... and six relative tossups.

S&P+ gives the Hogs between 39 and 66 percent win probability on half the schedule, which means close-game operation and the ability to finish will determine whether we’re looking at another 7-6 season (as S&P+ basically projects) or something greater.

Things have turned around for Bielema before, but it’s hard to assume it until we see it.

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