The most important thing that happened to Bret Bielema in the past month had nothing to do with football.
The Arkansas coach became a father recently, as he and wife Jen welcomed Briella Nichole Bielema into the world on July 8.
Two days later, Bielema addressed reporters at SEC Media Days. The media voted the Razorbacks to a fourth-place finish in the SEC West.
For the coming season, Arkansas must replace its leading rusher from 2016 in Rawleigh Williams, who retired from football after another scare involving a neck injury. The loss of Williams, the third-leading rusher in the SEC last season, comes on top of the Razorbacks losing four of their top five pass catchers from 2016. Arkansas will turn to Devwah Whaley to replace Williams. Whaley is a former blue-chip recruit, so the drop might not be too drastic.
Bielema teams have had a tendency of finishing seasons strong, but that traditionally comes after a poor start. The 2016 season, however, was different. The Razorbacks started 5-2 but lost four of their final six games to finish 7-6. Worse, they held double-digit halftime leads in the final two games — against Missouri and Virginia Tech — but were shut out in the second half each time and lost both games.
The Razorbacks put together another top-30 recruiting class in 2017, landing four 4-star recruits. The Razorbacks have nine commitments in their 2018 class, and have the No. 8 recruiting class in the SEC for the 2018 recruiting cycle.
Defense was a huge problem in 2016, especially against the run. After defensive coordinator Robb Smith left in the offseason, Bielema promoted secondary coach Paul Rhoads to that leading role. Rhoads has experience calling a defense and was Iowa State’s coach from 2009-15. If Rhoads can turn around the defense, Arkansas could be in for a much-improved season.
Bielema might need that to happen, considering his 66.2-percent approval rating in SEC Country’s previous approval poll. That left him 12th among SEC coaches. Only Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin came in with lower approval ratings.
Bielema earned $4.1 million in 2016. In his four years at Arkansas, Bielema has a 25-26 overall record but is 10-22 in the SEC. The Razorbacks open their season Aug. 31 against Florida A&M.
Vote on Bret Bielema’s approval rating
The SEC Country approval rating poll is designed to give an indication of fan happiness over a period of time.
Our formula is based on the percentage of respondents who select each answer. We multiply that percentage by the following factors: 1 (strongly approve), 0.67 (approve), 0.33 (disapprove) and 0.0 (strongly disapprove). In other words, if 50 percent of respondents select “strongly approve” and 50 percent select “approve,” the formula would be (50 x 1) + (50 x 0.67) = 83.5% approval rating.