FAYETTEVILLE — Bret Bielema hasn’t exactly taken time off from the spotlight following his winless debut in the Southeastern Conference.
The Arkansas coach, never one to avoid a healthy debate, has spent much of the offseason in the news for his comments about whether to slow the offenses in college football. He returns to the field Sunday when the Razorbacks open spring practice — a welcome reprieve for the second-year coach who suffered though a 3-9 season in his first season after leaving Wisconsin.
“I can’t wait,” Bielema said. “I think our kids have been chomping at the bit.”
The Razorbacks lost their final nine games last season, including all eight SEC games. It was their first winless conference season since entering the league in 1992.
They were leading LSU in the final game until a touchdown late in the fourth-quarter by the Tigers mercifully brought Arkansas’ season to a close — the second straight year the school missed out on a bowl game in the wake of the scandal that led the former coach Bobby Petrino’s firing.
Bielema has had plenty of time to think about that loss and a season that saw the Razorbacks finish 12th in the SEC with an average of 20.7 points per game.
Bielema has since taken the approach that the final dagger in the miserable year might have been the best thing in the long term for Arkansas.
“Just knowing the mentality and some of the guys, I really think they would have thought they had arrived if they beat LSU there at the end,” Bielema said. “I’m almost in the belief that maybe, although it’s nothing I wanted to live through, that maybe that might have been a blessing in disguise, to show that we had made progress but we’re not quite where we need to be.”
Much of the attention surrounding Bielema’s offseason has been focused on the much-scrutinized proposal that would have penalized offenses for snapping the ball before 10 seconds had run off the play clock.
Bielema supported the proposal and drew attention for calling the issue a “matter of safety, life and death.”
The proposal was tabled by the NCAA football rules committee, meaning the age of the up-tempo offense will continue this season. Bielema still hasn’t commented publicly on the decision, though his primary concern is improving the SEC’s worst passing offense.
Arkansas was last in the league last season with an average of 148.5 yards passing per game, leaving much of the attention this spring centered on the progress of incumbent starting quarterback Brandon Allen and his host of challengers — including younger brother, Austin.
Brandon Allen battled injuries for much of last season in his first year as the full-time starter, completing just 128 of 258 passes (49.6 percent) while throwing 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The Razorbacks brought in one quarterback, Missouri prep standout Rafe Peavey, during the offseason, and last season’s backup, AJ Derby, is back along with freshman Damon Mitchell.
It’s Austin Allen, however, who is widely expected to be the primary challenger for his older brother’s job — possibly opening the door for a tricky brother vs. brother situation for Bielema. The brothers were teammates at nearby Fayetteville in high school, but the younger Allen spent much of his sophomore season on the bench backing up his brother.
Austin Allen then took over as the starter after his older brother left for college, winning two prep state championships before redshirting at Arkansas last season.
“Both are great, but both are unique in what they are,” Bielema said. “I think (Brandon Allen), with just that full year of playing, that gives you such an advantage as a college football player, but especially at the quarterback position. That is so hard to put a price tag on, and that’s what probably separates them right now.”