By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Losses by Oregon, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma have turned the race for the national title – at least for now – into a three-team battle: Alabama, Arkansas and LSU. If the Tigers and Crimson Tide win out, all signs point to a rematch for the championship on Jan. 9 in New Orleans.
What would it take for Arkansas to earn a spot in the national title game? Does anybody really know? There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding how the top two in the BCS could look if LSU is defeated on Friday. The Razorbacks just need to beat the Tigers and let the rest sort itself out. Sure, that’s easier said than done, but that’s all Arkansas can do.
Although Arkansas has a 10-1 record, it has not played as strong of a schedule as LSU. The Razorbacks were destroyed 38-14 by Alabama on Sept. 24 for their only loss of the season. They also needed late rallies to beat Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
The Tigers have played one of the most difficult schedules in the nation. LSU has solid wins over Oregon, West Virginia and on the road in Tuscaloosa against Alabama.
The recent series has been controlled by Arkansas, with the Razorbacks winning three out of the last four games. These two teams hooked up for a memorable game in 2007, with Arkansas pulling out a 50-48 victory in three overtimes.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
Protecting quarterback Tyler Wilson is going to be priority No. 1 for Arkansas on Friday afternoon.
The Razorbacks have allowed 20 sacks this season, while the LSU defense has recorded 27.
In order for Arkansas to pull the upset, Wilson has to stay upright and continue to play mistake-free ball. He has tossed only five picks in 385 attempts this season, while completing 63.1 percent of his throws.
If Wilson can get time to throw, his receivers will have opportunities to make plays on the LSU secondary. Senior Jarius Wright leads the team with 1,002 yards and 10 scores, while Joe Adams (46 catches for 595 yards and three scores) and Cobi Hamilton (29 receptions for 441 yards and three scores) will test one of the nation’s top defensive backfields.
The Tigers have been stingy against the pass this season, allowing only two opponents (Oregon and West Virginia) to throw for more than 200 yards. Also, the secondary has allowed just five touchdown passes and none in the last five games.
With Knile Davis sidelined for the year due to an ankle injury, the Arkansas’ rushing attack has struggled to find some consistency. The Razorbacks rank 72nd nationally in rushing offense, but have managed at least 136 yards in four out of their last five games.
Dennis Johnson leads the team with 606 yards, while Ronnie Wingo has chipped in 424. Johnson is the team’s top big-play threat on the ground, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
Arkansas doesn't need 250 yards from its rushing attack, but it has to get some production. Getting some balance on offense will help slow down the LSU pass rush.
Considering LSU’s offense is not built to play from behind, if Arkansas can get up by two scores, it will force the Tigers to step outside of their normal offensive gameplan.
When LSU Has the Ball
While Arkansas likes to lean on its passing attack, the Tigers will stick with a run-first approach.
LSU has one of the deepest backfields in college football. Spencer Ware leads the team with 650 yards, while Michael Ford ranks second with 625. Alfred Blue (445), Kenny Hilliard (146) and Terrence Magee (133) will also see carries on Saturday.
The Tigers’ deep backfield will test a Razorback rush defense that is allowing 164.2 yards per game. If Arkansas wants to win in Baton Rouge on Friday, stopping LSU’s rushing attack is going to be critical.
Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee are both expected to see time under center for LSU, which will force the Razorbacks to prepare for two different styles. Jefferson gives the Tigers a running threat from the quarterback spot, while Lee is the pocket passer.
The tempo and score could largely dictate which quarterback is in the game. If the Tigers need to come from behind, Lee will see more action. However, Jefferson has started the last two games and is expected to start against Arkansas.
The Razorbacks are giving up some yards (360.3 per game), but are allowing only 21.1 points a game. Much of the defensive gameplan should be based upon stopping LSU’s rushing attack and forcing Jefferson or Lee to beat them through the air.
Arkansas’ secondary has been solid against the pass, allowing only 196.1 yards per game. Also, it has allowed just 10 passing scores and only two in its last four games.
To prevent the Razorbacks from committing too many defenders into the box, don't be surprised if the Tigers take a few shots downfield to receiver Rueben Randle.
One of the weekend’s most underrated matchups has to be LSU punter Brad Wing against Arkansas punt returner Joe Adams. Both have been among the best in college football on special teams this year, with Wing averaging 43 yards per punt, while Adams is averaging 16.2 yards per punt return and has returned three for touchdowns.
The Razorbacks also have dangerous options on kickoffs, with Dennis Johnson averaging 25.6 yards per return.
Arkansas may have a slight edge on returns, but LSU can’t be too far behind. Morris Claiborne is averaging 28.4 yards per kickoff return, and Tyrann Mathieu is averaging 9.8 yards per punt return.
The Tigers have a slight edge on field goals, as Drew Alleman has nailed 14 of 16 attempts this year.
LSU has navigated one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, but two obstacles remain to a berth in the national championship.
This game features an intriguing contrast of styles, and it will be critical for Arkansas’ upset bid to jump on LSU early.
If the Tigers are able to establish their rushing attack and keep Wilson and his receivers on the sideline, LSU should win and finish the regular season unbeaten. If the Razorbacks open up a 10 or 14-point lead, the Tigers could be in trouble.
The last six matchups in this series have been decided by eight points or less. Arkansas will keep it close, but the Tigers’ rushing attack will be too much in the fourth quarter, which will seal a trip to Atlanta for LSU.
Tigers 27, Razorbacks 20