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Arkansas coach Bret Bielema embraces underdog mentality

Updated: July 18, 2013 11:04AM

HOOVER, Ala. — Bret Bielema got off to a 17-1 start as the coach at Wisconsin. There’s virtually no chance he will be able to replicate that early success at Arkansas.

Bielema is up against it in a big way now, sharing space with Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and surging Ole Miss in the SEC West. The Razorbacks, coming off perhaps the most disappointing and dysfunctional season in school history, were in dire straits before luring Bielema, 43, away from Madison after six highly successful seasons there. Can a coach coming off three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances fix the mess he inherited and go nose-to-nose with college-football superpowers?

‘‘I do excel in situations where people think very little of us,’’ Bielema said at an SEC media event Wednesday.

Bielema always coached with a chip on his shoulder at Wisconsin, often proudly referring to the Badgers as ‘‘unsexy.’’ He isn’t using the same word in Fayetteville, but his fearless-underdog approach is taking hold.

‘‘You should see the difference in players’ mind-sets,’’ defensive end Chris Smith said.

‘‘There’s so much emotion and energy here now,’’ center Travis
Swanson said. ‘‘He’s exactly what you look for in a coach.’’

It’s vintage Bielema. His Badgers teams always felt like underdogs and always expected to win the Big Ten anyway. His Razorbacks are happy as hogs in slop to call themselves underdogs, but let’s get real: Their 2013 schedule includes visits to Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU.

We’ll have to check on Bielema’s mind-set four months from now.

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