- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Remember Bret Bielema's comments when he was still Wisconsin's coach about what he suggested were illegal recruiting tactics by new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer?
"I can tell you this," Bielema said at the time. "We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC ... in any way, shape or form."
Well, Bielema is in the SEC now as Arkansas' new coach, and it's clear that he's not bashful when it comes to speaking his mind.
At an Arkansas booster club function last week in Benton, Ark., Bielema didn't tread lightly.
Here's what he was quoted as saying when asked about the challenges of playing in the rugged Western Division: "I came to the SEC for a variety of reasons, but the major one in my mind was to win an SEC championship."
On the topic of two-time defending national champion Alabama and Nick Saban, Bielema was quoted as saying: "The reason the SEC is talked about all the time is one team, because of their dominance. But I didn't come here to play Alabama. I came here to beat Alabama.
"You can take Saban's record when he was at Michigan State and when he was a coach in the Big Ten and put it against mine, and he can't compare."
For the record, a spokesperson at Arkansas -- when asked about the context of Bielema's comments -- said he was making a light-hearted joke and didn't mean it as a shot at Alabama or Saban.
Ultimately, something says the Alabama fans (and Saban) will be the judge of that. Arkansas travels to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Oct. 19 next season to face Alabama. It's the final game of a grueling four-week stretch for Arkansas which starts with Texas A&M at home, Florida on the road, South Carolina at home and then the trip to Tuscaloosa.
Bielema's not the first new coach or fairly new coach in the SEC to set his sights on Saban. Vanderbilt's James Franklin called Saban "Nicky Satan" while speaking in Macon, Ga., back in January and boasted that he was going to outwork Saban. Franklin later called Saban to apologize and said he was merely making a joke and had tremendous respect for Saban and his work ethic.
The first thing that's obvious regarding both of these instances is that everybody is shooting for Alabama and Saban. That's what happens when a team wins three national titles in four years.
The other thing at play here is that new coaches in this league are looking to make a splash with their fans and recruits (remember that Lane Kiffin guy?), and sometimes they say things at outside speaking engagements they might not normally say at a news conference or while speaking to a group of reporters after practice.
That's OK, because we in the media complain all the time about coaches being robots and rarely saying what's on their mind.
Steve Spurrier is the exception, and it's refreshing any time you get an audience with the Head Ball Coach.
In Bielema's case, he'll get plenty of chances to "beat" Alabama and Saban. The two teams play every year, and the Crimson Tide have won six in a row in the series. Three of the past four games haven't been close.
Before everybody beats up too much on Bielema, the last thing Arkansas fans want to hear at a Razorback Club function is their new coach talking about how wide the gap is right now between Alabama and Arkansas. But I would also contend that Bielema might have sold the rest of the SEC a little short with his comments about "one team" being the reason the SEC is talked about all the time.
Four different schools have won national championships during the SEC's streak of seven in a row. Five SEC schools were ranked in the top 10 in the final polls last season, and six were in the top 15. There could be as many as 12 former SEC players taken in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft.
Make no mistake. Everybody's chasing Alabama right now, but there are still a ton of thoroughbreds in the race.
And simply getting to a point where you're consistently running up front in this league is the most daunting grind in college football.
6dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough