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Insider

Can Bielema turn it around at Arkansas?

7/16/2014
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners – it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Wednesday's second question: Will Bret Bielema be able to turn around the Arkansas Razorbacks, or is he fighting a losing battle?

It was a long, three-win season for Arkansas in Bielema’s first fall. Was that a sign of things to come, or is a turnaround on the horizon?

Coaches I talk with have mixed feelings, but some of that is because of friction between Bielema and his peers. Bielema is a straight shooter, and sometimes that sort of bluntness can create enemies.

“He’s not missed at Wisconsin. I can tell you that,” one coach said, adding that AD Barry Alvarez believes he got an upgrade in Gary Andersen.

The answer to the question is this: It depends on what you consider a turnaround. I highly doubt Bielema’s Arkansas is a regular SEC title game participant, let alone a playoff program, but it can rise to win seven or eight games a year and occasionally compete for the division. That’s the likely ceiling.

It’s a tricky job, largely because it’s in the SEC West. Bobby Petrino had taken the Razorbacks to the cusp of competing with Alabama and LSU, but they never crested that hump.

Who knows if they ever would have with Petrino? Auburn has figured out a way to enter the elite equation, but Auburn is located in a different recruiting zone and is as institutionally committed to football as any other program in the country.

So there’s some upstream swimming for Bielema at a time when it’s been difficult for even upstart Texas A&M to break through and compete in the division.

It’s early in the recruiting calendar, but Arkansas is currently 24th in our 2015 rankings. That includes much-needed help on both lines. The top two signees in the 2014 class (ranked No. 30) were also linemen. Even when Petrino was there, line play -- especially on defense, where a stronger pass rush is needed -- is what separated the Hogs from the top of the league.

It’s clear Bielema wants to set Arkansas up the same way that Wisconsin won: power running and strength at the line of scrimmage.

With exceptional backs Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall, and the staff/system in its second season, the Hogs should have more success in 2014. If nothing else, they have a great shot to play ball control.

Surely they’ll win two or three conference games and show signs of hope for the future. Then again, you start looking at the schedule and wonder where the wins will come. Only Nicholls State and UAB appear to be locks. A trip to Texas Tech followed by a home game against Northern Illinois present nonconference challenges, in addition to Georgia rotating on as a cross-divisional opponent. It could be another long year.

It’s not a dissimilar story to what’s happening at Tennessee. The difference is, Butch Jones has done a much better job of selling hope to fans and recruits alike. Will Bielema (and fans) grow frustrated if the wins don’t come?