It's easy for Razorback fans to feel great about the prospect of playing LSU again after the Hogs finally claimed an SEC victory in the Bielema era in dominant fashion on that cold November night in Fayetteville last fall. It's a memory few will forget anytime soon, but the time for resting on those laurels is quickly coming to a close. LSU will look for revenge in November and it's the time of year to focus on the upcoming season as opposed to celebrating last year's victories (but please go ahead and continue celebrating that one for another few months).
So what does the 2015 version of this game look like? Not much different, at this point. The simple story for LSU is mostly the same. They're an immensely talented group that has quarterback issues and at their worst, those issues significantly hamper the program's chances of winning. At this point in the preseason, neither Anthony Jennings (who did not have a good night against the Hogs last year) nor Brandon Harris have claimed the starting spot.
The other question mark for the Tigers is their defensive coordinator. John Chavis had been in Baton Rouge since 2009 and is considered one of the best in the business, but he bolted for Texas A&M after the season. Kevin Steele is taking his place.
LSU's offense averaged 5.6 yards per play, a respectable total given the schedule, sixth-hardest in the country. The Tigers ranked 37th in Off. S&P+, which wasn't good enough but better than the narrative would suggest.
The problem was consistency. The Tigers were under 4.7 yards per play four times and above 6.2 five times. They averaged 2.3 against Arkansas and 8.4 against Notre Dame, 3.2 against Alabama and 6.4 against Kentucky.
Beyond the Ole Miss game (5.7), there wasn't a baseline-average performance. Even considering the best per-play performance came in a loss (Notre Dame), the difference between winning LSU and losing LSU was stark.
If you're trying to talk yourself into LSU, here's a good time to remember how young this offense was: the Tigers bounced between a sophomore and freshman quarterback, had a freshman No. 1 running back, a sophomore No. 1 receiver, freshmen in the No. 2-4 receiver slots, and two sophomore starters on the line. Just about any offense that young is going to be volatile. It's something experience can smooth out.
Teams did have an amazing ability to play their worst offensive games against Arkansas last year. An incredible coincidence.
Of course, how closely Arkansas can match last year's defense is the team's leading question heading into the season. Last year's win over LSU felt like a blowout because of the shutout, but Arkansas only scored 17 points, one of the Hogs' lower outputs of the year. Considering how young LSU was at the offensive skill positions last year, it's hard to imagine they won't be better with a year of experience and playing at home this year. Will the Hogs be ready to match it?
Also, it may be silly to worry too much about quarterbacks when LSU does have that stable of running backs:
[Leonard Fournette] rushed 30 times for 289 yards and three scores against Texas A&M and Notre Dame. He also returned a kick for a touchdown. He ran through A&M and past the Irish. He showed the full tool box, and he did it twice in a row.
The big late games put him over 1,000 rushing yards for the season, and he showed potential as a pass-catcher as well. One assumes he'll be given everything he can handle in 2015, and it appears he can handle a lot.
He's got backups, too. Darrel Williams was decent for a freshman, and another five-star signee, Derrius Guice, joins the party. Why would you ever need Jennings or Harris to throw?
Arkansas limited LSU to just 36 rushing yards last year. If the Tigers can be slowed down to that extent, they obviously have to throw. You'd have to think that will be everybody's strategy against them, although pulling it off as well as the Hogs did last year is unlikely for most. Further LSU's offensive line should be solid but they're not proven. They lost All-SEC performer La'El Collins and center Elliott Porter. They'll start two new players at right and left guard. Of course, they have recruited well so it's not like they'll be starting scrubs.
And if they do have to throw, no question they have plenty of great targets.
Despite all the inconsistency at quarterback, the potential in the passing game was obvious. With all acknowledged struggles, then-sophomore Travin Dural and freshmen Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, and John Diarse combined to average 8.7 yards per target. Dural averaged over 9 per target as the far-and-away No. 1 target. These are excellent averages.
Of course, they were derived almost entirely from big plays. The foursome averaged a combined 18.6 yards per catch with a 47 percent catch rate. That's a lot of jump balls and minimal reliability.
All four return, which is exciting, and they could be joined by another five-star, Tyron Johnson. With Fournette pounding away and up to five receivers capable of beating coverage deep, LSU seems to have spectacular run-and-play-action potential.
When the Tigers are clicking on offense, opponents are in trouble because they are capable of scoring plenty of points. Arkansas was able to make them uncomfortable, which will likely be harder to do in Baton Rouge. Also, it's not often said, but the Razorbacks' secondary played really well at the end of last season, neutralizing talented receivers on several teams. That's the unit I think is also not getting enough attention this year. They basically bring back everybody but Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel, and even though Mitchel was drafted, I don't think many would say they were the best players in the secondary last year. The Hogs will still make things a challenge for opposing passing games.
On the other side of the ball, expect LSU to continue to be stout defensively, despite losing Chavis.
In 10 years, with three different coordinator arrangements, LSU has ranked outside of the Def. S&P+ top 10 twice. Between Miles' physical style and ace recruiting, this D has a high floor.
Still, it was surprising when Miles replaced Chavis with Kevin Steele. Part of that is our fault. We only remember specific instances or seasons from a coach's tenure, and we ignore the day-to-day detail coaches deal with. But the last time most of us saw Steele was when his 2011 Clemson defense was getting emasculated by West Virginia for 70 points and 600 yards in the Orange Bowl.
Between that, Steele's time as Baylor's head coach, and his shaky performance as coordinator in Nick Saban's first season at Alabama, we can put together an awful résumé.
Steele's got a high bar to clear. Despite youth and iffy depth up front -- the top tackles were a freshman (Davon Godchaux) and a sophomore (Christian LaCouture), and Chavis basically played just four linemen all season -- the Tigers ranked ninth in Def. S&P+. They gave up too many big run plays, generated almost no pass pressure, and still held 10 of 13 opponents under 5.4 yards per play.
The Razorbacks weren't spectacular on offense against LSU last year, gaining only 264 total yards, but it was enough. I think Arkansas will need more than 17 to win in Baton Rouge, unless Robb Smith is a genius and very well may be. The Hogs should have a better offense, however, but it's hard to imagine it still being good enough to put up many more points against LSU.
Some defenses can succeed without a pass rush. If your secondary is elite, as LSU's frequently is, you can use your linebackers conservatively, stepping them into passing lanes or bolting them to the QB as soon as scrambles. This was the Chavis formula last year, and it worked pretty well.
Still, LSU had no pass rush. Even without using linebackers and spending time with three down linemen, you'd like to think you can generate more than this. LSU had 19 sacks last year, four from Jermauria Rasco and 15 from everybody else.
Steele had an aggressive streak at Clemson. His excellent 2010 defense featured 32 sacks (15 from Da'Quan Bowers) and 60 passes defensed, so he will want to bring at least a little bit of pressure, even if his secondary is great.
It's not clear that he's got great pass-rushing personnel. Leading returning ends Tashawn Bower and Sione Teuhema combined for 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks among their 14.5 overall tackles, but their infrequent use makes them mysteries. And while incoming freshmen Arden Key and Isaiah Washington were well-regarded recruits, they're freshmen.
If LSU isn't able to generate much of a pass rush (and even if they try, Arkansas' offensive line will be a tall task for anybody), Brandon Allen should have time to throw.
The Tigers allowed quarterbacks to complete more than 59 percent of their passes just four times in 13 games and held seven opponents to 53 percent or lower. If passer rating is your thing, the Tigers held 10 of 13 under 115.
Despite the loss of Ronald Martin and Jalen Collins, Steele inherits some of the best talent in the country. Adams and Jalen Mills are capable of making and preventing big plays. They had eight tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed between them. LSU ranked sixth in IsoPPP+ (big play prevention). Plus, Thompson and Rickey Jefferson are back.
Cornerback is a little bit thinner, with only Tre'Davious White and Dwayne Thomas having scored major playing time, but a) White and Thomas are strong, and b) reinforcements are on the way. Between sophomore Ed Paris and freshmen Kevin Toliver II (one of the nation's best recruits this class), Donte Jackson, and Xavier Lewis, the odds are great that the No. 3 cornerback will be good.
Allen actually is one of the four aforementioned quarterbacks who completed more than 59% of his passes against LSU last year, albeit they were short passes (averaged 6.3 yards per attempt and a 56.8 QBR), so the question will be whether Arkansas' receivers can get open. Arkansas successfully used their tight ends against LSU last year, as Hunter Henry, AJ Derby, and Jeremy Sprinkle caught 9 of Allen's 16 completions and receivers caught only 3. Can the Hogs' tight ends present matchup problems again? If the receivers are as improved as we believe, it could be a challenge for the Tigers.
Arkansas and LSU are 4-4 against each other over the last 8 seasons, and coming off a shutout victory, it's easy to think you've got a clear advantage over a team. But, LSU is once again one of the most talented teams in the country and winning in Baton Rouge is something the Razorbacks have done only twice since entering the SEC. Although it's no guarantee, I think their quarterback situation will be improved from last year but still not elite.
I think this shapes up to be another close, low-scoring game in this series. If Allen can complete nearly 60% of his passes again, Arkansas has a great chance to win on the road. Likewise, if LSU has developed a decent passing game by November, they'll be hard to stop. I hate making predictions for games in November because that seems silly. So much will change by then. Injuries will alter lineups and game plans for both teams. I don't expect Arkansas to shut out LSU again, but look for the Hogs to have a great chance to win in Baton Rouge.