Bielema remains confident despite close losses
FAYETTEVILLE - Even Bret Bielema is impressed Arkansas' players haven't given up on the season despite a series of emotionally trying losses.
Now the second-year Razorbacks coach would like to finally turn that frustration into his first Southeastern Conference win.
Arkansas (4-5, 0-5 SEC) lost its 17th straight conference game last week, a 17-10 defeat at No. 1 Mississippi State. It was the fourth time the Razorbacks have either led or been tied in the second half of an eventual defeat this season, and it sent Bielema to 0-13 in the SEC since leaving Wisconsin.
"I'm amazed that they're playing as hard as they have with as much socks in the stomach as they've gotten, so I've actually been pretty pleased," Bielema said.
What's made this season even more exasperating than last year's winless SEC debut for Bielema has been the repeated gut-wrenching nature of the losses.
Arkansas lost its last nine straight games last season, with the final eight coming in SEC play - by an average margin of defeat of 21 points. That included back-to-back blowout losses to South Carolina and Alabama, by scores of 52-7 and 52-0.
This season, the Razorbacks largest margin of defeat is a season-opening 45-21 loss to No. 3 Auburn - a game that was tied 21-all at halftime before the Tigers took control.
Since then, Arkansas has let a 14-point fourth-quarter lead turn into an overtime loss to Texas A&M. That game was especially difficult to handle after kicker John Henson missed a 44-yard field goal attempt that would have put the Razorbacks up by 10 points with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
In its next game, Arkansas outgained the Crimson Tide 335-227 and led 13-7 in the fourth quarter, but a failed extra-point attempt came back to haunt the Razorbacks in the eventual 14-13 loss.
Last week's crushing loss to the Bulldogs was once again full of timely penalties, kicking-game miscues and what-ifs as Arkansas moved within three games of the school's worst conference losing streak - a 20-game stretch from 1940-43 when the Razorbacks were a member of the Southwest Conference.
Arkansas must now win two of its final three games if it wants to earn its first bowl berth since 2011, a difficult prospect with remaining home games against No. 14 LSU and No. 12 Mississippi before a season-ending game at Missouri.
Despite the seemingly never-ending gauntlet of the SEC that lies ahead, Bielema's confidence has remained high thanks to the resilience he's seen this season from the Razorbacks.
"I think if your team wasn't being managed very, very well you would not see the results that you're seeing," Bielema said. "You would see teams that just get handed one-sided losses very, very routinely. These guys never quit. I think they have shown that all year long; it's not an option in our program."