By Andrew Alexander
Yes, LSU lost another heart breaker to Alabama in Death Valley Saturday night, seemingly snatching defeat from the clutches of victory in overtime. And yes, the Tigers have officially erased any outside chance of winning the SEC West and crashing the College Football Playoff.
Time for fans to give up on the season, right?
To all the LSU fans out there still drowning their sorrows in the Tigerland bars or sobbing over their third Caniac combo in as many days because “it helps to ease the pain of losing to ‘Bama,” take a deep breath and put down the extra piece of toast.
By winning its final two regular season games and a bowl game, LSU has the chance to achieve a record fifth straight season with at least 10 wins. The only other SEC team to accomplish that feat over the same timespan beat LSU in Death Valley last Saturday. The Tigers are still a premiere program in the Southeastern Conference, but are enduring the inevitable growing pains caused by roster attrition and early departures.
LSU is 25-1 following a loss under coach Les Miles, and contrary to popular belief, have not given up in past seasons following losses to Alabama. In 2012, the Tigers responded to a devastating 21-17 loss to the Crimson Tide by walloping Mississippi State 37-17 at home and winning their final two regular season games against Ole Miss and Arkansas. Last year LSU was embarrassed by three touchdowns at the hands of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, but returned to Baton Rouge to defeat a Texas A&M squad led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel 34-10 and overcame a season-ending knee injury to quarterback Zach Mettenberger to defeat Arkansas in the season finale.
This year the Tigers must regroup and head on the road to face a hungry Arkansas squad, hell-bent on snapping a 17-game conference-losing streak.
LSU Offense vs. Arkansas Defense
By this point in the season the Tigers’ offensive attack has been well-documented: run the ball and control the clock. LSU was able to effectively implement said strategy for most of the game against Alabama, rushing for 183 yards and eating up a mind-boggling 38:16 off the clock. However quarterback Anthony Jennings’ passing woes continued on Saturday night, as the sophomore managed a meager 76 yards on 8-of-26 passing. Dropped passes from nearly every Tiger receiver did nothing to aid the sophomore signal caller. Led by senior linebacker Martrell Spaight, the second leading tackler in the SEC, and senior defense end Trey Flowers, the Razorback defense ranks in the middle of pack in the SEC in every major defensive category and is allowing 136.8 rushing yards per game. The Razorbacks have a feisty defense that limited Alabama to less than 230 yards and forced three turnovers against Mississippi State. The Razorbacks are the only defense to hold both Alabama and Mississippi State under 20 points, the only time either squad was limited that much all season. LSU relies a lot less on its passing attack than both the Tide and Bulldogs. Expect heavy doses of running backs Leonard Fournette and Terrence Magee all night long.
LSU Defense vs. Arkansas Offense
Arkansas employs a surprisingly balanced offensive attack despite its winless record in the SEC this season. The Razorbacks average over 200 yards passing and nearly 250 yards rushing per game. But make no mistake, coach Brett Bielema likes to pound the ball down his opponents’ throats, and he has the personnel to do it. Arkansas’ rushing attack starts up front with the largest offensive line in America, NFL or NCAA. Led by 6’10” left tackle Dan Skipper, the average weight per starter on the Arkansas offensive line is 328 lbs. and it knows how to effectively use every pound to open up huge holes for their running backs. Arkansas’ two-pronged rushing attack of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins have been wreaking havoc on SEC defenses all season. The pair each has over 800 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. LSU’s rush defense has drastically improved since the beginning of conference play and held Alabama to just 106 yards on the ground. The Tigers lead the SEC in pass defense, allowing only 163.5 yards. The key to this matchup will be tiring out the opponent by controlling the clock where Arkansas is second in the country in average time of possession, controlling the clock for 35:18 per game.
Despite a major kickoff gaffe late in the game against Alabama, the Tigers’ special teams have been above average all season. LSU ranks third in the SEC in net punting with 41.1 yards, while Arkansas’s punt return average sits at a meager 7.4 yards. The Razorbacks average 25.2 yards on kickoff returns, tops in the league. On the flip side, LSU ranks fourth in kickoff coverage. Tiger kicker Colby Delahoussaye leads the SEC with 10-of-11 field goals, while Arkansas’ John Henson and Adam McFain have combined to make only 4-of-7. The potential wintery conditions make special teams even more crucial, and the Tigers have stronger legs in every facet of the kicking game.
LSU’s biggest opponent this weekend is itself. Does this Tiger team have the mental fortitude to overcome a devastating loss to Alabama like past LSU squads? Les Miles’ record following a loss would certainly indicate he knows which buttons to push to motivate his team. LSU has better athletes, better talent and better coaches than the Razorbacks, and Arkansas didn’t lose 17-straight conference games by accident.
LSU 28, Arkansas 24