Texas a stepping stone in Arkansas' future

Bret Bielema is excited to play Texas.

It feels like it's in his bones, that wonderfully old-school matchup of former Southwest Conference rivals.

"How much better can you get than that?" he said. "A little Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles and voices from the past."

Bielema is smitten. The big, burly head coach of the Razorbacks has an equal in Texas coach Charlie Strong. Standing side-by-side, the two embody the kind of physical, smash-mouth football they've built their careers on. Their broad shoulders could span continents. Their sheer mass could halt elevators.

But let's face it, that's just window dressing. It makes for a great AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl and it should draw a large audience, but the impact of the game goes well beyond that.

Just read what Bielema said of his priorities for the bowl season.

"We have three goals," he said. "We want to develop our younger players in these practices that are going to return, the guys that are going to be the meat and potatoes of what we are next year; we have to put in a great game plan and execute it on the 29th against Texas; and hopefully from that game the third thing is to carry great momentum into 2015 and continue to build our brand."

Tucked in between thoughts of next year is the idea of winning the only football game remaining in 2014.

"It's a fine line," Bielema said of the difference between finishing 7-6 or 6-7, "but it's one that we hope to cross."

Rather than focusing solely on the outcome, what's important to Arkansas is its continued ascent in the SEC. After going winless in conference play for two years, the program broke through with wins against Ole Miss and LSU. Now it's about continuing to get better.

A week after its berth in the Texas Bowl was announced, Bielema gathered coaches together to lay out the schedule of bowl practices. In it, he said he targeted "22 players that are going to be returning on this year's roster that haven't been huge influences in the games yet."

He looked at those on the outside looking in: Special teams players, guys buried on the two-deep depth chart, players who had been redshirted and "have gotten comfortable and just passed time."

"If I can get those 22 guys to understand the urgency of our preparation, we'll make a huge stride there and that will give coaches a better understanding in the spring of what we need to do," he said.

Curious who those 22 are? Bielema elaborated.

On defense, he mentioned Armon Watts, Jake Hall, Tevin Beanum, Anthony Brown, Dwayne Eugene, Henre' Toliver, Santos Ramirez and Cornelius Floyd.

On offense, he wanted to see Brian Wallace, a "tremendous talent" who had been the No. 2 right tackle all season. He spotlighted tight end Jack Kraus and said he had "tremendous upside." Jared Cornelius, Kendrick Edwards, Juan Day and Tyler Colquitt were also under the microscope.

A handful of practices were dedicated to that next generation of players where juniors and seniors didn't even have to dress out.

"We just never got our throwing game where we needed it to," Bielema said, reflecting on the state of the offense this season. "Our tight ends made a nice jump, but we need to continue to build our wide receiver corps, whether it be through recruiting -- we're trying to add a couple of guys who can make difference, a couple of in-state prospects we're going well on that can help us immediately -- and then the development of our current roster. Those guys are going to be a big, big part of our offense making the next jump."

Ultimately, whether its the seniors ending their careers or the youngsters just beginning theirs, both are served best by a win against Texas.

But, in fact, the momentum is already there for Arkansas.

Just look at the impact on the recruiting trail, where the Razorbacks are ranked No. 21 in ESPN's current class rankings compared to its finish of No. 30 overall in their last signing class.

"It's blown me away," Bielema said of the change in Arkansas' perception from six months ago. "It's not just local. Texas, Louisiana, Florida, we've gone into Indianapolis, we've gone into Utah, we've gone into California. We'll always base our recruiting efforts on Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, dabble into Missouri a little bit and get into Florida, but our national presence is felt."

It's an old-school, regional game, Texas versus Arkansas. But for both programs the hope is to expand beyond that.

The difference between finishing above .500 and below it is one thing. Taking the next step and pushing into the realm of contending for championships is another.