FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — You have to hand it to Bret Bielema.
The man certainly knows how to make an entrance, even if he hasn't coached a game yet at Arkansas. From one-time critic of the Southeastern Conference while at Wisconsin and now a rebel in his new league, Bielema has come full circle in his nine months with the Razorbacks.
And that was just off the field.
Now, Bielema is finally ready to show off the results of the work he's put in over his short time with the Razorbacks. More specifically, he's ready to take on the SEC's best on the field rather than with his words — as has been the case seemingly time and again up until now.
What Bielema inherited at Arkansas was a flawed team with scars that ran deep from the post-Bobby Petrino fallout, as evidenced by last year's 4-8 collapse and being picked to finish last in the SEC West this year.
Just don't try and tell Bielema that. The former walk-on turned big-time coach is nothing if not full of confidence, which is exactly what he's tried to instill in the wounded Razorbacks, who were among the SEC's best prior to last year's meltdown.
He's also provided Arkansas with a much-needed dose of stability after last season's debacle with interim coach John L. Smith. It's that foundation that has Arkansas confident it can excel in the underdog role, as well as avoid the bottoming out of a year ago. The opener is Aug. 31 at home against Louisiana-Lafayette.
"It all starts with your head coach," Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. "If your head coach has confidence, that's your momentum right there. I know everyone's voted us as low as you can go. The only way you can go is up."
Five things to keep an eye on as Arkansas looks to prove its doubters wrong:
1. QUARTERBACK QUESTIONS: Bielema isn't the only new look this season at Arkansas. Enter Brandon Allen, the homegrown kid who went to high school less than a five-minute walk from Razorback Stadium. Being the starting quarterback at Arkansas was always the dream and goal for Allen, whose father was a longtime assistant coach at Arkansas. He now has the chance to fulfill both in the post-Tyler Wilson era, and the sophomore has looked the part so far in camp — including a 16-of-17 passing effort in his first preseason scrimmage. "He's become more confident, more vocal, more of a leader for this offense, and he knows he can be the best quarterback in the SEC," Arkansas receiver Julian Horton said.
2. MAD SCIENTIST: New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has a reputation as both a passing-game aficionado, thanks to his previous work with Drew Brees at Purdue, time with the "Greatest Show On Turf" in St. Louis and, most recently, at Tennessee. Chaney's passing preference could be put to the test at some point this season while meshing with Bielema's more-balanced approach and power running game, but he deftly deflected any of those concerns. "It's a funny thing about paychecks," Chaney joked. "They tend to voice their little view at you at all specific times."
3. RUNNING WILD: For the school that once fielded Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis in the same backfield, expectations are high this season at running back — despite the fact none of the starting candidates have established themselves in the SEC yet. Sophomore Jonathan Williams is the front-runner to carry the load, but highly recruited freshman Alex Collins will push him. Also, speedster Nate Holmes will see time, and senior fullback Kiero Small is expected to see his production rise.
4. IDENTITY CRISIS: Arkansas' reputation under Petrino, and last year under much of the same coaching staff, was simple: Throw the ball here, throw the ball there, throw the ball everywhere — and let the rest of the game work itself out. Times have certainly changed for the Razorbacks, who have gone through more physical practices under Bielema, and who bring a more powerful approach — particularly on defense. Arkansas has a host of concerns on that side of the ball, particularly at linebacker. It should, however, be strong on the defensive line, led by senior defensive end Chris Smith, who had 9.5 sacks last season. "I feel like it all starts up front with our front four," Smith said. "And then hopefully it gets contagious to our linebackers and secondary."
5. MENTAL HANGOVER: When things went badly last season, namely in a stunning loss to Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas collapsed. This season's schedule (including a four-game stretch against Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama) will test the Razorbacks and their belief in Bielema, who has refused to look at this year as a rebuilding effort. "With all due respect, I didn't come here to be great in three years," Bielema said.
Predicted finish in the SEC West: Seventh.