— Bret Bielema (@BretBielema) May 18, 2014
Arkansas football tying its preseason social media hype campaign into a disaster movie is not without irony. Coach Bret Bielema enters his second season as Head Hog with a disastrous first year behind him.
In the SEC West, the Razorbacks face a task as tall as felling the mighty Godzilla. Bielema must either build the struggling team into one of the division’s many kaiju, or risk being nothing more than fodder for monsters Alabama and Auburn.
Last season, Arkansas was pretty clearly the latter. It finished 3-9 and a miserable 0-8 on SEC play, suffering such ugly defeats as 52-0 to Alabama and 52-7 against South Carolina.
Now, Bielema’s rough initiation is understandable–Arkansas was a program in turmoil before he arrived, thanks to the April 2012 firing of Bobby Petrino and tumultuous transition to John L. Smith.
Smith was battling his own off-field problems amid the Razorbacks’ lost season, and the pressure produced this unfortunately memorable moment:
But with so much off-the-field drama already spilling over into the Razorbacks’ play, the last thing Arkansas football needed from its new regime was more turbulence beyond the stadium.
Unfortunately, Bielema’s brief tenure has been dotted with various public relations gaffes. Before he ever coached the Razorbacks, he decried the supposed safety risks of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
His lamentations laid the groundwork for a burgeoning rivalry with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. Malzahn’s Tigers beat Bielema’s Razorbacks last season, 35-17, but the final outcome was overshadowed by accusations of Auburn players faking injury.
The reigning SEC champion Auburn is Arkansas’s Week 1 opponent.
Bielema didn’t back away from his anti-hurry-up rhetoric this offseason, opting instead to take a much more serious tone. In the days after Cal defensive end Ted Agu died from what was later revealed to be excessive thickening of the heart muscle, Bielema said:
Bielema was asked about evidence regarding injuries. His answer: "Death certificates," referencing the death of a Cal football player.
— Troy Schulte (@TroySchulteADG) February 21, 2014
Agu played for head coach Sonny Dykes, who runs the “bear raid” spread. To make such an association was the ultimate in false equivalency, and Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour responded swiftly and aggressively. Bielema’s ensuing apology was not much of one.
This wasn’t the first time in the past year the Pac-12 was at the center of a Razorbacks firestorm.
Bielema’s previous program, Wisconsin, suffered a 32-30 loss at Arizona State in September, wherein officials badly botched the final seconds. The Badgers were unable to attempt what would have been the game-winning field goal, and Jen Bielema famously tweeted “#karma.” The tweet has long-since been deleted, but it lives in a most unflattering website.
Perhaps Jen Bielema’s tweet was in reference to something else. Perhaps she was venting frustration from the months of ill-will her husband undoubtedly endured from a vocal minority in the Wisconsin fanbase that felt jilted.
Regardless, college football’s social media community quickly turned #karma into the derisive, go-to smoke signal whenever an Arkansas lost followed–and they followed often.
#Hogzilla is an effective way of diverting some hashtag heat away from #karma, though perhaps not as Arkansas marketers may have envisioned. It didn’t take long for snark to play Mothra to Arkansas’ Godzilla.
— Bryan Jones (@bryanjones) May 18, 2014
— Matt d (@PSUMatt2005) May 18, 2014
Arkansas football does have some positive momentum, however. There Razorbacks were competitive against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU down the stretch, suggesting the gap between them and other SEC West teams was not so wide.
Bielema is hardly without talent entering the 2014 campaign. Much like his teams at Wisconsin, Bielema’s backfield is well-socked with difference-making running back. Both Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams appear on Heisman Pundit Chris Huston’s preseason watch list.
The entire running back corps impressed in last month’s spring game, particularly Korliss Marshall. Given Bielema’s highly successful Wisconsin teams were built on foundations of power-run games and stout defense, Arkansas has one important cornerstone.
The jury is still out on the other cornerstone, however. The defense returns eight starters from a season ago and was overwhelming in the spring game, though that may be a byproduct of the instability at quarterback. Brandon Allen ended practices as the Hogs’ No. 1, but is coming off a season in which he completed fewer than half his pass attempts (128-258) and was intercepted 10 times.
Bret Bielema doesn’t exactly have the SEC West’s new Godzilla on his hands this upcoming season, but he needs Arkansas to be more than rubble if he’s to keep the heat off.