Make as many derisive “Arkansas didn’t lose this week!” jokes as you wish, but the Hogs actually gained something from the bye week.
Just as the first bye after the Texas A&M defeat was useful salve for a bunch that got slugged in the gut with that overtime loss, this one was opportune since Mississippi State thwarted the Razorbacks’ latest brave but faltering bid for a nationwide splash. That’s what the in-house consequences are: Bret Bielema’s staff can prepare for LSU knowing that the team is physically healthy, and motivated to finish strong after stinging losses have again put them in dicey straits for postseason consideration.
Outside Arkansas, the effect is greater. LSU will be doubtless depleted after the Tigers, well, pulled an Arkansas. They had Alabama teetering at Death Valley Saturday night in one more splendid chapter in that rivalry, and when T.J. Yeldon winced and watched the ball skitter away from him inside the Alabama 10 in the late stages, everything was set up for another of those Richter-registering, sour mash-abusing nights in the bayou.
Except LSU got really dumb and really lazy at the worst time. A penalty that could be described as nothing less than moronic took the pedestrian Tiger offense out of touchdown’s reach, and they ultimately settled for the field goal. That enabled a composed ‘Bama offense to take a few baby steps and two big jumps down to the red zone; the tying field goal attempt was true, the Tide’s opening possession of overtime started with 24 quick yards on a well-designed throw, and Blake Sims tossed the eventual winning score to DeAndrew White two plays later. LSU squandered its overtime possession.
What all did the 20-13 loss do to the Tigers? Well, for starters, it took them smooth out of the jumbled SEC West picture for good. With two league losses, and with Auburn dropping its second earlier in the day, LSU had ideas of knocking the Crimson Tide out for a second league loss and claiming that head-to-head matchup. It would’ve created the sort of cosmic and karmic brand of flux that Les Miles practically thrives on.
Instead, Arkansas — yes, 17 consecutive conference losses in tow — enters the Battle of the Boot on Saturday as a marginal favorite against the Tigers. Why? Well, the Hogs have taken the top two teams in the West, in disparate locations, to the final gun. They’ve also got three very ripe chances to make everyone forget about the aforesaid skid, and an obvious hunger to end it all, with the effort and talent thoroughly supporting that. And they take on an LSU team that is fresh off an enormously deflating and brutally physical game, and almost pathologically unprepared to play even an ailing or deficient Hogs team from season to season.
They also have a quarterback problem. Anthony Jennings has some skill, which he regrettably first put on public display in leading the Tigers on a 99-yard game-winning drive last November against the Hogs, but he’s shown himself to be erratic (47 percent completion rate) and shockingly ineffective in the running game (15 sacks have contributed to his pedestrian 157 total rushing yards this year). The greatness of LSU’s skill people has been accordingly muted, as Leonard Fournette hasn’t made quite the anticipated splash as a breakaway threat, with only one run longer than 25 yards for the touted frosh.
With Brandon Harris getting occasional snaps, there’s room to think this is another Jarrett Lee-Jordan Jefferson situation, where Les Miles basically swaps these guys on a whim for, oh, about three solid seasons. Travin Dural looked like an explosive receiver after four games, three of which had him surpassing 100 yards by a wide margin; since that time, he’s grabbed 12 catches for only 207 yards in six games, and regarded newcomer Malachi Dupre has all but disappeared, too. The bottom line is that, yet again, LSU seems replete with raw speed and shiftiness in the backfield, physical specimens on the edge, and nary a hint of how to utilize it all.
As such, you’d anticipate that Arkansas’s resurgent defense will be on toes rather than heels Saturday night at Razorback Stadium, and chilly conditions might suitably energize the Hogs’ front to the extent that they’ll revisit their Texas Tech and Texas A&M performances, opening gaping holes for the running backs. Korliss Marshall’s likely to play into that as well, presuming he’s earned his keep again. We’ve been just shy of preseason projection (4-5, 0-5 is a Georgia win shy of the 5-4, 1-4 that Pearls expected), and for this game, we unexpectedly feel the same way in November that we did two solid months ago: LSU is, at the moment, more of a paper Tiger than anything, and it is unquestionably the opportunity that Bielema has craved. For a change, Arkansas is getting a formidable team in a perceived moment of weakness, rather than at its apparent zenith.