FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Bret Bielema knew he was taking over a group of players still reeling from the fallout of the Bobby Petrino scandal when he was hired at Arkansas last December.
Coming off a 4-8 season under interim coach John L. Smith, the Razorbacks were in desperate need of stability at the top — something they immediately found with Bielema. The former Wisconsin coach took one look at his new team, with its 18 seniors and emotional scars, and let his expectations be known right away.
"With all due respect, I didn't come here to be great in three years," Bielema said.
Arkansas has its first opportunity to live up to Bielema's early expectations on Saturday when it hosts Louisiana-Lafayette. The game will mark the beginning of the Bielema era, one without household names such as Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton.
What Arkansas does have is a collective chip on its shoulder, thanks to preseason predictions of doom and gloom. The Razorbacks were picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference West Division, though Bielema — who is 7-0 in his career as a head coach in season openers — is counting on the toughness developed through last year's scandal to pay off during his first season.
"They've been through a lot; they've persevered," Bielema said. "They've championed some very, very tough moments. I know we lost good players. Believe me, I know how good some of those players are that left, but there are some other guys that are waiting to make a name for themselves."
Bielema and the rest of the Arkansas players have gone out of their way to offer praise to the Ragin' Cajuns this week. Louisiana-Lafayette has finished 9-4 in each of the last two seasons and won each of the last two New Orleans Bowls.
There's also that little matter of the last time the Razorbacks played a team from the Sun Belt Conference — last year's shocking overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe, a game that all but sealed Smith's fate at Arkansas.
"Somebody looking in from the outside might say, 'Oh, they've got a new coach, and they're not going to win until they build the program,'" Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. "Well, we've got right now. We've got the tools right now."
Five things to watch as Arkansas tries to hold off Louisiana-Lafayette and start the Bielema era in style:
1. ALLEN'S TIME: Bielema is far from the only one who will be watched closely at Arkansas on Saturday. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen will also make his debut as the starter, at least as something more than just an injury fill-in for Wilson. The Fayetteville native won the starting job during the spring, and he's made progress throughout the preseason under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Bielema and Chaney have preached a balanced approach on offense — unlike the pass-first mentality of the Razorbacks under Petrino and Smith — so it's unclear yet how much Allen will have to carry the Razorbacks. One thing is clear: Allen is eager to finally put to rest any lingering doubts about his ability after struggles last season while filling in for the injured Wilson.
2. BROADWAY SHOW: Ragin' Cajuns quarterback Terrance Broadway was one of the best in the Sun Belt last season, accounting for 3,611 yards of total offense (2,842 passing, 769 rushing). The junior opens this season against an Arkansas team that struggled mightily last year in pass defense, finishing last in the SEC with an average of 285.8 yards allowed through the air per game. As much as Arkansas' offense will be watched in its first game under Bielema, the defense's progress could determine the outcome of this game.
3. HOT MESS: Watch out for soaring temperatures on Saturday in Razorback Stadium. After a cooler-than-usual August in northwest Arkansas, the heat has returned in force this week — with a high of 97 degrees forecast for kickoff.
4. PARTY CRASHERS: Louisiana-Lafayette is no stranger to playing on the road against the SEC. The Ragin' Cajuns nearly pulled off an upset at Florida last season, and they enter this week expecting nothing less than a competitive game. "Our guys are confident," Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. "They're not by any means arrogant or cocky coming into this game, but they're confident. They're looking forward to the challenge of competing against these guys."
5. REVAMPED BACKFIELD: With Davis and Dennis Johnson gone as its top two running back options, Arkansas' present and future has the opportunity to show what it can do on Saturday. Sophomore Jonathan Williams is Bielema's "go-to guy" at running back, but highly recruited freshman Alex Collins is expected to play as well. Also watch out for sophomore speedster Nate Holmes and senior fullback Kiero Small, who is returning from last season's foot injury.