Can he prove them wrong?

Bret Bielema

Arkansas is picked to finish last in the SEC. The Razorbacks' head coach understands why, but isn't ready to accept the predictions as true.

Stop me if you've heard this before.

Arkansas will be better in 2014 but it might not show up in the win-loss column.

That seems to be the official diagnosis of the Razorbacks this preseason from those in the know. With several starters returning from a winless team in Southeastern Conference play, Arkansas has nowhere to go but up.

But with one of college football's toughest schedules staring them down, the Razorbacks aren't favored to move up too far. In fact, Arkansas was picked to stay put and finish last among all SEC teams by 1,200-plus media members last week.

"I get it," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said Wednesday. "I haven't earned the respect in this league to think (an improved record) may happen. We went winless in the SEC.

"Not seeing an increase in wins and losses is just out of respect to who our opponents are. We open up with Auburn, we have two nonconference opponents in Texas Tech and Northern Illinois that I'd imagine we won't be a favorite in. Northern Illinois has been to two BCS games and Texas Tech is coming off a good year with a lot of players coming back. I don't see it as a slap in my face, I see it is a compliment to our opponents."

Because Arkansas - barring injury - won't stray from Brandon Allen at quarterback going into the season, Bielema said pundits are likely to look at the team as the same one that finished last season on a 9-game losing streak.

"But that's why you coach," Bielema added, "to make people better."

So how could Arkansas be better in 2014? Making changes to the defensive coaching staff is one way, Bielema said, because the defense often looked lost last season.

The coach said game film revealed players looking the wrong way at the snap of the football, indicating they didn't know the play. Arkansas coaches have repeatedly talked about simplifying play calls, allowing players to better react.

But the biggest change might be subtle ones fans never see.

"It will be incredibly different because I know my roster," Bielema said. "Last year we were in a room as coaches where we didn't recruit those kids and we didn't get a chance to know who they were before they were 18.

"We didn't know if Mom made the decisions, Dad made the decisions, Grandpa made the decisions, a pastor made the decisions - we just kind of jumped into it and you've got to know those things to know who they are. You've got to know those things before you know how they're going to react to pressure. You've got to know those things to know how they're going to react when things aren't good. There are so many ways we're more comfortable right now. It's like night and day."

Arkansas still faces several challenges, in particular deficiencies at some skill positions and a group of starters not familiar with how to close games. And of course there's the schedule, ranked by many as the nation's most difficult in 2014 with 10 teams who played in a bowl game a year ago.

But Bielema is optimistic his team has learned from its struggles in his first year and will show that in year two. Despite the projections, the Razorbacks coach isn't lacking confidence heading into next month's season opener.

"If there's one guy in our program intimidated by Auburn, they don't belong here," Bielema said. "We don't recruit that way.

"I wanted the challenge of playing in the SEC West and the great thing is I'm recruiting players who think the same way."

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