Year three has become a trademark term for folks in the coaching business.
Progress is expected from the first season to the third, anyone in college football would agree with that. What separates an ordinary program from a nationally recognized powerhouse is the amount of growth, development and improvement that is expected from the head coach during that short timeframe.
Enter Bret Bielema and the Arkansas Razorbacks.
2015 will be the third season for Bielema at Arkansas, a program that’s been consistently inconsistent throughout the past decade. While Bielema has made significant improvements from his first season to his second, the third year will be his most pivotal.
On the surface, it would appear that Arkansas is happy with the progress its new coach has made. Improving from 3-9 in 2013 to a 7-6 mark last year, including a 31-7 win over Texas in the Texas Bowl. But there’s still one area the Razorbacks have lagged though – conference victories.
In Beilema’s first two seasons, Arkansas has posted a 2-14 mark in conference play. Both wins came a season ago and were significant in the reconstruction of a torn-down program. A 17-0 win over #20 LSU and a 30-0 victory over #8 Ole Miss in consecutive Saturdays were exactly the type of statements Bielema needed to make to prove his formula was working in the nation’s toughest conference.
Those two victories were huge for the program but a 2-6 record in the SEC is unacceptable by most standards.
It brings some interesting questions to mind.
Does Bielema have to continue to show improvement to stay off the hot seat at the end of the 2015 season? How many games do the Razorbacks have to win to keep the fan base on board with their newest head coach? Is it possible that Bielema’s job, despite massive improvement in a single season, could be in jeopardy?
While it doesn’t seem apparent that Bielema is in any sort of danger of looking for a new program in the near future, there’s a level of expectation in the SEC unlike anywhere else. Other programs in other conferences are typically content with consistent bowl seasons and competitive teams, that’s not the standard in the SEC.
Coaches who post 7-6 marks and struggle to reach the .500 mark in conference action typically aren’t asked to stick around too long.
That’s not to suggest Bielema will be ousted if the Razorbacks aren’t on the cusp of a conference championship or are vying for one of the four seeds for the College Football playoff, but a lack of progress in 2015 could put him in an uncomfortable position moving forward.
Arkansas returns plenty of talent next season and will be expected to finish towards the top of the SEC West. Nine starters on offense, including quarterback Brandon Allen and running back Jonathon Williams, will return as well as seven returners on the defensive side of the ball.
Bielema will have the talent and experience on his roster to catapult the Razorbacks from the bottom of the division to the top of the conference.
Which makes the third year for Bielema his most significant.
If Arkansas finishes in the middle-of-the-road of a loaded SEC West, the clock may begin ticking on Bielema’s welcome.
After all, the motto for the state is Regnant Populus – the people rule.
Following a seven-win season, it’s hard to imagine a replicated performance in 2015 would satisfy the Razorback faithful. Certainly they will need to post more than two wins in SEC play to be considered a team heading in the right direction.
Last year, Arkansas earned a few quality wins. Next year, it will need to couple that with quantity.
The number of wins Bielema needs to stay out of the conversation of coaches on the hot seat is debatable. Is it any number higher than seven? Does he need to have at least 10 tally marks in the “W” column? Or is it somewhere in between?
We may not know the answer until the season comes to an end.