FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema probably didn’t expect a smooth ride when he took over a program that went 4-8 in 2012 last December.
It’s pretty clear the first-year coach didn’t expect this through eight weeks, though.
Arkansas has lost five straight games, which is the longest losing streak of Bielema’s head coaching career. It’s wallowing at the bottom of the SEC standings at 0-4 as well. The number of losses haven’t been the only source of frustration, it’s the way the deficits have grown in size each week from 4, 12, 20, 45 and 52 points.
“The last two have been - obviously - it’s been a tough road,” Bielema said last Saturday, referring to the 52-7 and 52-0 losses to South Carolina and Alabama, respectively. “But knew it when we signed up for this schedule. It is what it is.
“The SEC is a very competitive market and to get the bye week and to get ourselves back a little bit healthy, I think just to mentally take a breath of fresh air to see where we’re at, it’s going to be a good work week for our guys.”
There’s no doubt Arkansas’ bye week has come at a much needed time with the struggles growing every week. The Razorbacks will get a chance to regroup this week before returning to the field against BCS No. 11 Auburn (6-1, 3-1) on Nov. 2.
Arkansas is scheduled to practice today, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before taking the weekend off. The work will be critical for a team that hasn’t much right in any phase of the game recently. The Hogs have been thumped because of it.
The 45- and 52-point losses to South Carolina and Alabama, respectively, rank among Arkansas’ five worst in SEC play. There has been a lot of that lately for the floundering program. Four of the Razorbacks’ five worst SEC losses have come in their past 12 conference games dating back to the 2012 season.
“We’re down right now. Any team would be down, especially after this kind of loss,” Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry. “But I think this week we’ll get a lot better. I think we’ll learn from our mistakes. We just have to cut down on the mistakes.”
There have been almost too many to count.
Missed tackles and assignment errors have plagued the defense, which has allowed opponents to score on 16 of 20 possessions (14 touchdowns, two field goals) in the past two games. Bielema and his staff have been particularly frustrated with missed tackles in the losses, watching opponents run through Arkansas defenders.
“I have no doubts about the coaches,” Arkansas safety Alan Turner said. “I know they’re good coaches. We’ve just got to minimize the mistakes.
“It’s on us. The coaches can only do so much.”
The offense has endured one its rockiest scoring stretches since joining the SEC, failing to move the football the past three weeks behind a passing attack that has fallen to 121st out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in completion percentage (46.4 percent). Drops, turnovers and other mistakes have resulted in 17 points over the past three games, which is the program’s lowest point total since managing 13 over the same stretch to end the 1995 season.
“There is a lot of things that happen between our ears that have a direct impact on the game that can be easily corrected,” Bielema said about his offense, which is averaging 12.5 points in SEC play. “It’s just this muck we’ve got to get out of. This, you know, again, a respect to have 11 guys leave the huddle with the same plan.”
But Bielema said there have been off-the-field issues that have affected the Razorbacks on gameday as well. The latest example: Tight end Alex Voelzke was left behind after being late to a meeting last week and his absence was felt on Saturday.
Voelzke is a starter on Arkansas’ field goal unit. Arkansas shuffled players to fill his void and place kicker Zach Hocker’s only attempt was blocked Saturday.
“That was directly affected because on Friday I’ve got to leave a guy at home because he’s five minutes late to a special teams meeting,” Bielema said. “Which involved a guy that’s a starter on that unit to adjust three people on Friday and it’s just, we can’t get anywhere with that. Until our guys learn to do all that stuff before we even get on the plane, we really don’t have a good chance.”
Bielema said the coaching staff would re-evaluate everything — personnel, schemes, etc. — during the off week to find solutions for the struggles.
It doesn’t appear the task on the field will be any easier when they return to play Auburn, which has been one of the SEC’s biggest surprises this season. The Tigers turned in their best performance in beating the Aggies and should be Arkansas’ fifth ranked opponent as long as they take care of Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
Bielema believes last year’s struggles continue to resonate in returning players saying, “you’re a product of what you’ve witnessed and what you’ve seen.” He stressed the culture must change quickly if Arkansas wants to wrap up the regular season on good note. The Razorbacks remain in contention for a bowl game, but must win three of their final four games to reach the six-win mark.
Arkansas players insisted they haven’t lost hope that they can accomplish their preseason goal of reaching the postseason as they move into the bye week.
“It’s tough,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “I feel like this bye week is going to help a lot of people’s bodies and help us get better. Get us back. This gives us two weeks to prepare for Auburn … We want to make the best that we can out of these last four games. If we can win three out of the four, we’re bowl eligible.
“That’s one thing we’re going to try to do, just try to fight to get the wins.”
Arkansas has suffered two of the worst losses in its Southeastern Conference history the past two weeks against South Carolina and Alabama. It’s part of a painful stretch that dates back to last season, when the Razorbacks were beaten soundly by Alabama and Texas A&M as well. Arkansas has suffered through four of its five worst SEC losses over its past 12 conference games. Below is a list of Arkansas’ worst losses in conference games since joining the SEC in 1992:
52 — Alabama, 52-0 on Oct. 19, 2013
52 — Alabama, 52-0 on Sept. 15, 2012
49 — Florida, 56-7 on Oct. 4, 1997
48 — Texas A&M, 58-10 on Sept. 29, 2012
45 — South Carolina, 52-7 on Oct. 12, 2013
43 — Tennessee, 63-20 on Nov. 11, 2000
41 — Tennessee, 55-14 on Nov. 16, 1996