Hog fans got a bit of a surprise this week when the Vegas line debuted at Arkansas -1, and then quickly rode up to 2.5, meaning the Hogs are favored in an SEC game for the first time this season. This bodes well, considering that Arkansas is 7-2 against the spread this season (although one of the losses was to Georgia, which was generously only giving 3.5 points). Let's start with why Vegas is going with Arkansas as a favorite.
- LSU is coming off a brutal, physical, emotional loss to Alabama, while Arkansas was on a bye. The oddsmakers expect LSU to be spent emotionally and physically. Since Nick Saban's hiring at Alabama, here are LSU's opponents the week after Alabama: Louisiana Tech (2007), UL Monroe (2008), Louisiana Tech (2009), Troy (2010), Western Kentucky (2011), Mississippi State (2012), and BYE (2013). Zero road games and only one SEC game. You can bet the Tigers aren't happy about getting physical with Arkansas.
- It's at home. Home teams generally get 3 to 5 points. Arkansas has played well in Fayetteville this season, blasting Nicholls, NIU, and UAB and giving Alabama a great game. The predicted snowy weather may benefit the Hogs as well, as bad weather widens the production gap between the teams that want to be there and the teams that don't.
- Arkansas compares favorably against common opponents. LSU's three SEC wins (Ole Miss, Kentucky, Florida) are against teams Arkansas has not played. The common foes are Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State.
Here how each team looked in those three games:
- Auburn: Arkansas was tied 21-21 at the half before Auburn took over, not fully asserting itself until a pick-six late in the third made it 35-21. Final was 45-21. LSU was dominated from start to finish, trailing 28-0 at the half and losing 41-7. ADVANTAGE: Arkansas
- Mississippi State: Arkansas (in Starkville) played State toe-for-toe, leading 10-0 at one point and 10-10 entering the fourth quarter. The game-tying pass was picked off in the endzone with 30 seconds left. LSU (in Baton Rouge) fell behind early and looked awful throughout. Mississippi State let up with a 27-point lead, and almost too soon as LSU came back to finish 34-29. ADVANTAGE: Arkansas
- Alabama: Arkansas outplayed the Tide, outgaining them by 120 yards, but a missed extra point and a fumble through the endzone proved costly in a 14-13 loss. LSU also gave a good game, surrendering a field goal with 2 seconds left to send the game to overtime, where the Tigers fell 20-13. ADVANTAGE: Even
So based on those stats, it makes a little more sense that Arkansas is favored. On to the numbers!
Watch out for LSU's secondary
Arkansas' next two games - both at home against LSU and Ole Miss - are against the two best secondaries in the SEC and probably all of college football. Brandon Allen has to be careful with the football or LSU will be more than happy to win on the backs to a couple game-changing interceptions.
|ARK off||LSU def|
|Pass Downs S&P+||26th||16th|
The Tigers are stingy on defense, but Auburn and Mississippi State ran on them, hurting their Rushing rankings. They are fairly young up front, and that seems to be a weakness. The front seven is a relatively weak 38th in havoc rate, or the percentage of plays where they swat a pass, make a sack or TFL, or force a turnover. The secondary is 9th, however, and they do a good job of getting off the field on third down.
Arkansas isn't going to win by throwing 40 times. The Hogs could win if they throw in the 25-32 range, especially if the passes are safe and short.
Here's what LSU's run defense has done this year:
|Opponent||Rush Off S&P+||Season||vs. LSU||Margin|
After a couple of bad games against Mississippi State and Auburn, the Tigers have been stingy against the run, although none of the last four opponents are truly great running teams. Also, none of those four have truly great offensive lines (Ole Miss is close), while Auburn and Mississippi State (and Wisconsin) have leaned on great line-play all season.
Here's Arkansas' rushing offense for comparison:
|Opponent||Rush Def S&P+||Season||vs. ARK||Margin|
After down games in rushing against Alabama and Georgia (due mostly to Alex Collins' brief slump), the Hogs ran fairly well against State, which bodes well. Alabama and Mississippi State both have elite front sevens on defense, and both are probably quite a bit better than LSU.
I've pointed out Arkansas' first-down passing struggles (just 1.8 yards per attempt against Mississippi State) and noted that first-down passing has been a problem for two years now. Against State, Arkansas called 19 runs and 14 passes on first down. The 19 runs had a success rate of 26.3 percent and gained 3.3 yards per play. That's bad, but not atrocious. The 14 passes had a success rate of 21.4 percent and gained 1.8 yards per play. That IS atrocious. The 58 percent run rate on first down is way too low. It needs to be about 75 percent. And the 25 percent of plays that are passes need to be safest, most reliable plays Jim Chaney has. The little quick hitch to Keon Hatcher is always a good four or five yards. The bootleg pass to A.J. Derby. The bubble screen to Hatcher or Jared Cornelius. The little eight-yard curl-out to Hunter Henry. However the Hogs do it, they're going to have to do something on first down.
Defense's time to shine, part II
Last time we expected the defense to rise up and crush somebody, the Hogs got rocked by Georgia, although the offense's collapse played a role in that. The Hogs were without middle linebacker Brooks Ellis, the defense's "glue guy" who makes sure everybody is in position and then makes a large share of the tackles, for that game, but there are no excuses this time. Mobile quarterback Anthony Jennings took quite a few hits against Alabama and had to come out twice, so his mobility may be limited if he's still sore.
|ARK def||LSU off|
|Pass Downs S&P+||20th||31st|
Arkansas' defense owns an advantage in rushing, which bodes really well. Unlike LSU's front seven, Arkansas' front creates a lot of havoc: 6th in the nation. The Hogs are 4th in the nation in overall havoc rate, and could create some problems for an LSU offense lagging in talent at quarterback, receiver, and (occasionally) offensive line.
After the Tigers lost two straight to Mississippi State and Auburn, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron changed up the offense. He re-inserted demoted quarterback Anthony Jennings and closed the QB competition. He then put the season on the back of a trio of running backs led by uber-talented true freshman Leonard Fournette. The Tigers opted to use a strategy of run, run, run until they had to pass, and then use Jennings' cannon arm to throw bombs to speedy receivers. That's been the plan, and it's been an upgrade over what they were doing. If the Tigers encounter limited resistance to their rushing attack (like against Kentucky), it's game over. When forced to pass, (Ole Miss, Alabama), things get dicey. Here's how the run game has looked:
|Opponent||Rush Def S&P+||Season||vs. LSU||Margin|
Check out those last four games. Wow. The strategy change has meant that the Tigers are running over teams. If held below about 200 yards, the Tigers are generally toast, but if they find something they can exploit in Arkansas' front, this one will be over in a hurry.
Here's Arkansas' run defense for comparison:
|Opponent||Rush Off S&P+||Season||vs. ARK||Margin|
Arkansas has faced some of college football's best rushing teams, and Robb Smith's unit has been fantastic ever since the opener. In terms of efficiency, LSU's run game is only fourth-best Arkansas has faced. If the Hogs can hold LSU under 200 yards (that would be a -11% margin, which is very doable), the Hogs have a great chance.
At some point, LSU is going to have to pass. When this happens, the Tigers have a favorite target. Travin Dural, the nemesis who caught the game-winning bomb last year on a busted coverage, leads LSU is receiving and has 39 percent of the Tigers' passing yards, the second-most among all teams Arkansas has faced (behind Amari Cooper at 48 percent).
That's 23.4 yards per catch for Dural, among the highest in the FBS. Dupre is at 22.6, which is also up there. Arkansas' pass defense strategy is to shade safety coverage and line up excellent cornerback Henre' Toliver to the side of the best receiver on a team to try and force the quarterback to find other targets. It has worked all year:
|Team||Name||Receptions/Game||Yards/Game||Receptions vs ARK||Yards vs ARK||Yards Margin|
|Texas Tech||Bradley Marquez||5.8||72.7||4||34||-53.23%|
|Texas A&M||Malcome Kennedy||4.6||47.7||3||44||-7.76%|
|Mississippi State||D'Runnya Wilson||2.4||40.8||2||18||-55.86%|
The performance on Amari Cooper stands out, but the Hogs did well against Wilson of State as well. The asterisks next to Coates and Mitchell indicate that Arkansas targeted those receivers although they aren't the top guys on the team. For Auburn, the Hogs had no film on D'haquille Williams, who has gone on lead the Tigers this season, while Mitchell was returning from injury and was selected to get the extra coverage treatment.
Jennings has been very average at finding other targets, and Ole Miss and Alabama wised up to LSU's act. Against Alabama, LSU managed just 76 passing yards against a more-vulnerable-than-usual Alabama secondary. Dural has just 36 total receiving yards in the last two weeks, and his four receptions still lead the team over that span, True wide receivers have a TOTAL of seven receptions in the last two games. Running backs have pretty much all of the rest.
Arkansas will probably put Toliver on Dural and slant the coverage toward him. If he's limited to under 40 yards (a reasonable goal given his last two games), the Hogs can expect to give up a catch or two to Dupre on the other side, and maybe a couple of targets for slot man Trey Quinn, who had a couple of critical drops against Alabama. Other than that, pretty much everything else is going to the backs. The Tigers favor Terrance Magee in the passing game, but will also throw to Fournette.
This is where the defense Arkansas is in comes into play. Here's Cover 2, what Arkansas WANTS to do and will do in obvious passing situations:
Against Cover 2, LSU sends the receivers deep to try and take the cornerbacks with them and then throw to backs in the flats that the corners vacated. To stop this, Arkansas' outside linebackers (and, on third down, nickelback Tevin Mitchel), namely Martrell Spaight, have to have quick sideline-to-sideline speed to get out there. Still, if Arkansas is getting pressure - and it usually does - then the cornerbacks can help because the quarterback doesn't have as much time to throw over the safeties, allowing the coverage to be tighter all around.
By any means, Cover 2 is preferable to Cover 3, seen here:
Cover 3 is used to get an extra defender in the box, usually the strong safety. Notice his position in the Cover 3 as opposed to one of the S's in the Cover 2 diagram. The defense gets eight in the box. Robb Smith prefers to use Cover 2, as it protects Arkansas' weak safeties from getting burned, but if seven in the box can't stop LSU's run game, the Hogs will have to use Cover 3. With the cornerbacks bailing deep, it's harder for the linebackers to get to the flat.
Either way, if it comes down to Arkansas' skill players vs. LSU's skill players, the Tigers will probably win. Arkansas needs to win the trenches. LSU is 96th in sack percentage, as the quarterback goes down on 7.8 percent of dropbacks. They don't protect their quarterback very well. Trey Flowers needs to have a monster game to prevent LSU from having success passing.
Here are some other key stats:
|12th||3rd Down Conversions||94th|
|88th||3rd Down Defense||10th|
|54th||TFLs per Game||77th|
|14th||TFLs per Game Allowed||26th|
|20th||Penalties per Game||47th|
Pretty even all around. Third downs will be key for both teams.
Key stat of the week: Points off turnovers
I tried "turnover margin" against Mississippi State and it didn't work, as Arkansas went +2 and lost anyway. So let me clarify: you gotta score when you force them. Here how LSU has looked against major foes in turnover department:
As you can see, there's no discernible pattern to wins and losses to be found. LSU's defense has frequently been able to overcome turnovers. That's why Arkansas must make the Tigers pay. Arkansas went four full games (Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, UAB) without scoring once following a turnover. The streak was ultimately five straight turnovers (an interception against Texas A&M to the first interception vs. Mississippi State) without any points off them. Arkansas finally cashed in on a Bulldog fumbled punt in the second quarter, then promptly failed to score after Brooks Ellis picked off Dak Prescott just before half.
Arkansas needs to make LSU pay for turnovers. Jennings will probably give the secondary a gift, and the offense needs to cash that in for points.
Keys to the game
- Go at least +7 in points off turnovers. Just discussed. Very important.
- Hold Travin Dural under 50 receiving yards. It's a tall order, but he's been smothered against Ole Miss and Alabama. Arkansas' defense has to play at or near that level and make LSU earn everything.
- Outrush LSU. Pretty simple here. The Hogs will likely out-pass the Tigers, so out-rushing them as well guarantees a large total yards margin.
- Don't give up any plays of 40+ yards. Big plays late killed the Hogs against Texas A&M and Mississippi State. LSU doesn't generate too many big plays, so don't give them any gifts.
- Post a havoc rate of 15 percent. Remember, a havoc play is a pass break-up (Arkansas is really good at this), a TFL, a sack, or a turnover forced. Arkansas is 4th nationally at 19.8 percent for the year. Havoc leads to turnovers and lost yardage, and LSU is a dismal 94th on third down, so forcing the Tigers into such situations is vital, and havoc plays are the easiest way to do it.