For those of you expecting a repeat performance of last year's 17-0 win over LSU, I have some bad news.
Saturday actually pits the two best offenses in the SEC against each other, in terms of S&P+. The best (Arkansas, 8th), is playing its best football of the season, while the second-best (LSU, 12th) is at home. As high-powered spreads continue to draw all the attention, Arkansas and LSU have the best offenses.
The difference is, of course, that LSU boasts a capable defense to go along with their offense, while Arkansas does not. How the Hogs adjust to LSU's pro-style offense will determine the Hogs' fate.
You may be disappointed to find that Arkansas actually dropped one spot (41st to 42nd) despite beating Ole Miss on the road. Toledo losing didn't help, and Texas A&M losing probably hurt more than Auburn winning (since Arkansas barely beat Auburn). Also, Arkansas only barely won, and S&P+ doesn't actually care who wins, only who performs the best. Arkansas' defense was shredded so badly that the already-low numbers fell more than the offensive numbers rebounded.
Arkansas Offense vs. LSU Defense
LSU's defense is not in the same class as Alabama's. The Tigers gave up yards and points to awful teams like South Carolina, Eastern Michigan, and Syracuse. New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was not exactly a splash hire (his last job was at Clemson where he was fired following a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl), but Les Miles sold the hire to fans by also hiring Ed Orgeron to coach the defensive line. LSU's defensive line is fine, but the rest of the defense is suspect.
It's worth noting that Arkansas' "finishing drives" ranking has risen by 70 spots in the last three games. Scoring in every overtime period helps, but the Hogs finished drives well in regulation too.
Arkansas' running-game-in-being helps boost pass numbers, and I don't see any reason to believe that LSU can stop Arkansas' run without stacking the box (as Alabama was able to). This will benefit Arkansas in the passing game.
LSU's rush defense numbers are largely inflated by playing some of the worst rushing teams in the country and dominating them even more than expected (hence the opponent-adjusted values being favorable). Florida rushed 31 times for 55 yards (1.8 ypc). South Carolina went 20 for 74 (3.7). Mississippi State went 26 for 43 (1.7). Finally, Auburn had 37 carries for 160 yards (4.3 ypc), much of it in junk time. Recall that Auburn has improved tremendously since a quarterback change the following week.
Last Saturday, Derrick Henry alone rushed for 210 yards, and the Tide rolled up 250 yards and three touchdowns on the ground as a team, exposing the Tigers up front. Because of this, we don't really know how good LSU's run defense is. It's probably at least decent, but it's not in Alabama's class: The Hogs held Henry to 27 carries for 95 yards and Alabama as a team to 46 for 134 (2.9).
Arkansas should probably be able to crank out short, efficient runs throughout the game, which is what the Hogs want to do anyway. LSU isn't actually very deep up front, and may tire out as the game progresses.
LSU doesn't spend much time in the opponent's backfield, which should allow Arkansas to limit negative plays. The adjusted line yards number is high for LSU -- again, it looks like they dominant already-bad teams, kind of like Ole Miss beating UTM by 73 points... then losing to Arkansas, who only beat UTM by 35. How badly you can beat up awful teams doesn't really matter.
Well, last week proved the passing game isn't a fluke, and the Hogs are ranked #1 in the nation in Passing S&P+ for the 4th time this year (after UTEP, after Tennessee, after the bye being the other three). I'm not sure how to judge LSU's pass defense overall. It is very good, but is it elite? The jury's still out on that. Here's how they've fared in major games this year:
- Mississippi State. Dak Prescott was 34 of 52 for 335 yards with one touchdown and no picks. As mentioned above, MSU's run game is awful, so this was their entire offense. The numbers look good, but that's only 6.2 yards per attempt and MSU only scored 19 points.
- Auburn. Jeremy Johnson was 11 of 19 for 100 yards with two touchdowns and one pick. This dominant performance is really boosting LSU's numbers, since Johnson was pulled the following week and Auburn's figures have vastly improved under Sean White.... but LSU still gets credit for Auburn's entire-season performance despite the QB change coming after the game.
- Syracuse. Freshman Zack Mahoney, replacing the injured Orange starter, completed 16 of 38 passes for 154 yards with three touchdowns and one pick. Just like the above, LSU got to play the backup but gets the full-season stats (Syracuse's starter has since returned). Granted, Syracuse is awful anyway.
- South Carolina. Perry Orth compelted 14 of 28 passes for 200 yards with two touchdowns and one pick. Not a bad game for Orth, who was making his first career start after replacing the ineffective Connor Mitch.
- Florida. Of all of LSU's games this year, this one is the flukiest for LSU's stats. Quarterback Will Grier was having an excellent season when he was declared ineligible before this game, so Treon Harris was making his first start of the season when he completed 17 of 32 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns with no picks. Not a bad performance in Baton Rouge.
- Western Kentucky. WKU's excellent quarterback Brandon Doughty was 37 of 61 for 325 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. The Hilltoppers hung around for a while before fading in the second half.
- Alabama. Jake Coker was 18 of 24 for 184 yards. Not a dazzling performance, but the Tide didn't need it.
Hopefully the point is obvious. Four of LSU's opponents have had quarterback troubles this season, and LSU got to play two quarterbacks making their first start (South Carolina, Florida) and three quarterbacks that were/are less effective than the quarterback that didn't play against LSU (Auburn, Syracuse, Florida). The three stable quarterback situations (not counting Eastern Michigan) combined to complete 89 of 137 passes (65 percent) for 844 yards (281.3 ypg) with four touchdowns and one interception, and 6.2 yards per attempt. Does LSU have a good pass defense? Of course. Have they been lucky to have such impressive numbers? Absolutely.
LSU Offense vs. Arkansas Defense
Arkansas' defense has been awful most of this season, with the second half against Tennessee and the first half against Auburn as the only positive moments, outside of Alabama. The good news is that Arkansas performed well against the Tide, who are schematically similar to the Tigers.
LSU doesn't possess an overly efficient offense, but they hit a bunch of big plays.
LSU is vastly run-heavy and uses pro-style sets to do it. Their adjusted run-rate is 67 percent, 8th nationally. For what it's worth, Arkansas' adjusted run-rate is 52 percent, which is 56th nationally and 7th in the SEC, so the "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" argument really doesn't work, if you haven't noticed.
LSU's run game is largely predicated on Leonard Fournette breaking off big runs. He's efficient, too, but it's the explosiveness that makes LSU so dangerous. Arkansas' safeties miss lots of tackles, and that cannot happen on Saturday.
Line play helps, with an opportunity rate ranked third in the nation. Remember, opportunity rate is the percentage of runs that gain at least five yards (thus presenting an "opportunity" to break off a big run). Arkansas' opponent-adjusted line yards defense is actually really good.
You may be wondering how Arkansas could be 100th in Rushing Defense S&P+ but so good at Adjusted Line Yards Defense. The reason is that adjusted line yards is totally free from quarterback scrambles (Chad Kelly was Ole Miss' leading rusher, while Patrick Mahomes also hurt the Hogs with his legs), while Rushing S&P+ still counts some quarterback runs. The Hogs put the clamp on Henry and Alabama, and held Tennessee's Jalen Hurd to just four yards in the second half. Robb Smith's defense is built for offenses like LSU's, but Fournette may be too superhuman to stop.
Arkansas' pass defense is atrocious, and even LSU's awful passing success rate still confers an advantage to the Tigers. Arkansas absolutely has to play better on Saturday.
LSU's receivers are, like Ole Miss', good. Quarterback Brandon Harris is not very accurate, but he hits a lot of deep passes thanks to the defenses' tendency to focus on Fournette. Stop Fournette, and you render LSU's passing game largely helpless. That's easier said than done, though...
Keys to the Game
- Slow Fournette. Stopping him is too much to ask, but if Arkansas' offense continues to roll, slowing him will be all Arkansas needs. Everything LSU does offensively depends on Fournette's ability to consistently find holes.
- Win one-on-ones. Arkansas' receivers won pretty much every one-on-one passing situation against Ole Miss. The Hogs may have too many weapons to leave in single-coverage, but defenses will have to cover off-receivers (like Dominique Reed, Hunter Henry, or Jared Cornelius) in order to account for the run and still give Drew Morgan the attention he commands. The difference between a good offense and a great offense is winning those battles.
- Win in the trenches. This will be huge. For the defensive line, winning up front is a huge part of slowing Fournette. Offensively, protecting Brandon Allen and opening up just enough holes in the running game to keep the LSU defense honest will be a major key to success.
Bonus: How Arkansas can force a three-way tie for first in the SEC West
Arkansas is still mathematically alive in the SEC West. Remember, the Toledo and Texas Tech losses don't factor in to conference standings. If the Razorbacks win out, and Alabama loses to both Mississippi State and Auburn, the Hogs would go to Atlanta since they would own a tiebreaker over both Ole Miss and LSU. Of course, it's not particularly realistic that the Tide would lose their last two games, but they're both on the road, so it will be worth keeping an eye on.
However, it's also possible the SEC West ends up in a 3-way tie if Arkansas wins out and Alabama loses one of their two final SEC games.
Arkansas, Alabama, and the Ole Miss/LSU winner could still finish with 6-2 SEC records. In the case of a three-way tie, Arkansas could claim and SEC West title as they do for the 1998 season even without going to Atlanta, but the Razorbacks still wouldn't go to Atlanta.
If LSU beats Ole Miss, Alabama would own the tiebreaker because they beat both Arkansas and LSU. If Ole Miss beats LSU, since the three teams all beat each other, the next deciding factor in the SEC is overall record, which Alabama would have over Arkansas and Ole Miss since the Tide didn't lose a non-conference game.