Even if his team is coming off a 3-9 mark of a year ago in which it was winless in league play, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is not trying to hide his excitement about jumping head first into year two at the helm of the Razorbacks.
That will happen Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m when Arkansas visits defending SEC champion Auburn in a game that will be televised by the SEC Network – the same channel the league will get action underway with South Carolina and Texas A&M Thursday at 5 p.m.
“Very excited,” Bielema said on Wednesday's SEC Teleconference. “I'd like to wish the entire SEC the best of luck in their openers. I'm excited to see the conference come out. Obviously a lot of great games, not just for us, but across the conference.
“For us in particular, I thought we had a really good fall camp,” Bielema said. “ I thought the growth from a year ago, not just in our returning players, but new players that we've added to the roster, the returning coaches, the new coaches that we've added to our coaching staff and just the chemistry that those things involve has been very, very positive.”
Arkansas is likely to be without cornerback Tevin Mitchel, but has gotten through camp pretty much unscathed.
“Fortunately for us, we've been able to stay relatively healthy,” Bielema said. “We've had some guys get banged up, dinged up, but nobody that's going to be gone for an extended period of time.”
Bielema is excited about the differences in his offense and defense from year one until year two.
“I thought offensively from the day camp started to where we are today, they really embraced the challenges we put in front of them, the things that we believe are of core importance to have offensive success.
“Defensively, to bring in a new, basically an entire defensive staff, our players have really bought in from everything to a tackling progression to a thought process of how we play first, second, third and fourth down to key elements that we believe they've got to practice with every day.”
Auburn is coming off an incredible 2013 worst-to-first season where it rebounded from 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play with two miracle wins that handed the Tigers the SEC title and a runner-up finish nationally.
“Auburn obviously had a very special season a year ago,” Bielema said. “ A lot of very key players coming back. I'm excited about the match-up to go over there and see exactly where we stand. I've said this throughout the out-of-season, but obviously to start our season against Auburn, to actually end our last regular-season game against Missouri, to play the two teams that played in the SEC championship game is something that we truly get to embrace and see the standard where we're at right now.”
An Alabama writer asked Bielema if was he criticizing Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn for his refusal to announce just how long starting quarterback Nick Marshall – who had legal trouble in the off-season – would not play on Saturday.
“Not at all,” Bielema said. “You're reading too much rhetoric (into it). I think that every coach has a policy in place that the University gives when someone asks me a question in regards to that. I know, for us, we have a policy in place if certain things pop up. I like being in the black-and-white. A decision's got to be made and they are kind of made for you. I think that is the relationship that I have with (Arkansas athletic director) Jeff Long and where I've been at previously as far as those channels.
“Gus handles his team and he has obviously done a great job of it,” Bielema said. “He's won an SEC title and put himself in the national championship game and that speaks volumes about that staff is capable of doing and how talented they are.”
Back-up Jeremy Johnson is slated to start in place of Marshall.
“I think obviously Nick is a very gifted player in his own right. But he's a very gifted player in their system,” Bielema said. “Gus obviously has had success over the course of time no matter where he's been with his philosophy. He's had some things he tweaked along the way, but obviously it's an uptempo offense that likes to put a flavor to it.
“ We're going to obviously have a game plan when Nick's in the game,” Bielema added. “We'll have a game plan for Jeremy Johnson or anybody else they throw in there. You're not playing the player, you're playing the team, and it's important for our guys to realize that.
“I think some key points from a year ago, not only in our game but what you could learn about them in 2013 compared to where they're at now, you've got to a little bit of a guessing game,” Bielema continued. “They lost some good players, but they have a lot of really good players back and added more.”
There is a good chance of rain coming down during the season opener.
“We'll control the controllables,” Bielema said. “We don't have any say in that. I think obviously we've prepared for that going back to fall camp. We had wet balls and we threw some of those into yesterday's practice, and we will again today. Our players understand the concepts behind that. But whatever it is, we just want to be at our best on Saturday and give it an opportunity to showcase what we've grown.”
Bielema is obviously happy to be taking Alabama native Trey Flowers – who could have left for the NFL - with him this Saturday.
“He and I were going back and forth a little bit the other day just about the expectations of the season and how it is enhanced by what we have seen in camp from where we were a year ago. He is a truly, truly blessed young man and as coaches we are blessed to have him. He comes from a great family and to be in his home state for this game I know means a lot to him.”
Bielema was also about a new SEC guideline that tells the refs to use a “brisk jog” to spot the football and that one 8-man crew (an extra ref just to spot the ball) will be used at games this season.
“Everything that I've told, we're not going to have the 8-man crew for our game there,” Bielema said. “ I think it's safer to be said we were told at some point every team will have that crew in effect. As far as pace of play, that's obviously up to the NCAA rules and we're excited about the opportunity to play an uptempo team. I think it's a really neat thing to have college football and have teams with different philosophies. As far as the officials on game day, players play, coaches coach and officials officiate, and I'm sure everybody will do a great job at all three.”
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