TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The sun was setting on Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa and Bret Bielema stood at midfield holding a steaming cup of coffee in his hands. His team was warming up behind him, but Arkansas' burly head coach looked straight ahead at the defending champions with a kind of quiet focus, sipping caffeine as he took mental notes.
This was the team he wants to build in Fayetteville: big, talented, determined. Each movement had a purpose. Each drill was defined. The organization of it all is something. When Alabama takes the field, it oozes professionalism. There's no wasted movement, no amount of time unspent. Nick Saban runs a business and the return, more often than not, has yielded championships.
Saturday's game against the top-ranked Crimson Tide started out about winning for Bielema and the Razorbacks, but it quickly became clear that an upset wasn't in the cards. Alabama dominated from the opening snap, taking the kickoff out to the 35-yard line before going on a 12-play, 68-yard drive that lasted 5:51 and ended with the easiest of touchdown passes from AJ McCarron to Jalston Fowler. Arkansas got the ball, went three-and-out and watched its punter boot the ball just 22 yards. Alabama took only five plays to score from the Arkansas 35-yard line. Its two-touchdown lead grew and grew until the Tide ran away with a 52-0 victory.
All Bielema could do was watch. There wasn't a call he could have made to change the outcome of the game. He stayed committed to the run with 31 carries to his top two tailbacks -- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams -- but neither broke the 100-yard mark and only four times did they rush the ball for 10 or more yards. When Brandon Allen did get a chance to throw the ball he had very little success, completing 7 of 25 passes for 91 yards and no touchdowns. His longest completion -- a 25-yard pass to Hunter Henry -- was followed up by an interception on the very next play. In fact, it was the very same play thrown to the very same receiver, only flipped and run out of shotgun instead of under center.
"Obviously, this is getting a little old," Bielema said, the first words of his postgame news conference ringing true on the heels of a 52-7 beat down against South Carolina a week earlier. "Nothing we did out there can give us any indication that the things we need to do are that far away. It's a long way to go. We are at a point where we have to look at ourselves offensively, defensively and special teams, all the things we are asking our kids to do."
The frustration in Bielema's voice was obvious. He came to Arkansas from Wisconsin hoping to compete sooner. But it was the same tune we heard less than a week earlier. Heading into the game, he sounded dejected. He sat at his Monday news conference, the steam of another warm cup of coffee rising near his face as he talked about how difficult the previous game's film was to get through. "I want to win now," he told reporters. "I want to win as soon as possible." But he didn't want to be a "Debbie Downer." He said that expecting history to repeat itself was an "easy, simple way of thinking."
"If you want to get out of this doldrum, if you want to move forward as a person, you take pride in what just happened."
Pride, though, seemed absent following the loss on the road to Alabama. There wasn't much for Bielema to rally around. His offense didn't have a positive play until 4:22 in the first quarter. His defense barely had a chance. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, who entered the game with 10 combined sacks, had none against the Alabama offensive line. Neither had a quarterback hurry. Alabama had two running backs gain more than 100 yards and neither was named T.J. Yeldon.
Against Alabama, Arkansas showed its youth as much as its lack of talent. The Razorbacks, who haven't finished with a top-15 recruiting class once since 2006, had more first-year starters and underclassmen on the field Saturday than most teams in the SEC. Two of its offensive linemen were true freshmen. Its brightest young star on defense, defensive lineman Darius Philon, was a redshirt freshman Alabama tried to grayshirt coming out of high school.
"You've got to look toward the future," Williams said. "It's tough right now but we've got to keep working toward the future."
What that future is might be in doubt. For now, Arkansas is two games under .500 and winless in the SEC. Reaching a bowl game is unlikely. An infusion of young talent is desperately needed. Bielema's best player, center Travis Swanson, will be gone after the season, as will his best player on defense, Smith. Collins, who ranks in the top 20 nationally in rushing as a freshman, is someone to build around, but he can't do it alone.
"It's to that point where you have to understand where we are going with the guys that survive this," Bielema said. "The guys that move forward with us will be rewarded. I don't know if it is going to come the next game or if it will be in the next month from now, or a year from now, but it's going to take a leap of faith."
On Saturday, Bielema saw in person just how far that leap from rebuilding a program to playing competitive football will be.
From his spot at midfield before the game, he was only a few yards away from touching the finished product: Alabama, a program running on all cylinders. He took another sip of coffee and recorded another mental note, building on the blueprint in his head. When he finally turned around to see his own team, the distance to completion must have felt like miles away.