LSU lost to Alabama last week. It was bad. It was ugly. Whatever LSU fans may disagree about regarding that game, that's one thing we can all agree on.
And it's over. Done. It happened, and we can't take it back. So that leaves wallowing in it and what it means (and make no mistake, a number of soft-chested fans are going to) or moving on. LSU has three tough but winnable games left on the schedule. Three games that all mean something, with a chance to close out a season that will still be pretty damn good by any measure.
And the chance for more than that is still out there.
This program, this fan base, these coaches and these players can choose to get over last week, or still live under it. It's a part of life and it's a part of competing for championships, both now and in the future. And it's something we have to see the Tigers try to do on Saturday.
In their way is one of the conference's hottest teams, led by a senior quarterback.
What to Watch For
Bret Bielema. BERT. Fullbacks. Big-assed linemen -- the biggest in football! Good old-fashioned, manned-up-as-hell football that's healthy, not like that dangerous, no-huddle spread stuff, right?
Arkansas just had their second 400-yard passing game of the year last week, as Brandon Allen 33-of-45 passes and threw for six touchdowns.
Not that there's anything wrong with leading with your quarterback, especially when he's playing as well as Allen. The only thing that matters about an offensive style is that it works for a team.
It's just funny to see how Arkansas' offense has evolved under first-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos, given all of Bielema's bluster. Schematically, Enos hasn't changed a ton from what Jim Chaney did last year. The Razorbacks mostly work with either a fullback or a second tight end on the field, with the occasional third wide receiver. What's always been interesting is that the running game is less power/counter and focuses more on the types of runs that many would consider "finesse," like traps and draws. It works, obviously, as Alex Collins is over 1,000 yards on the season, it's just the type of playcalling you expect from a team that struggles to push people around.
One does wonder if maybe that's been lost for this team a bit. Obviously that huge offensive line is still pretty good -- near the top of the league in fewest sacks and tackles for loss allowed. But it's curious that in some big spots, such as close losses to Toledo and Texas A&M, Arkansas has trusted the passing game over the running game.
And yeah, Allen has done very well this year. He may even be All-SEC. But he reminds me more of that classic senior quarterback, like a Greg McElroy, Connor Shaw or Hutson Mason. He knows what he's doing out there and where to go with the ball in most situations, etc... But ultimately, he's just a little physically limited, so the supporting cast better make up for that. And while Arkansas' wide receivers have been coming on, there isn't that dominant playmaker, even with the SEC's best tight end in Hunter Henry.
Overall, Arkansas reminds me a lot of last year's team. The expectations were definitely inflated this summer -- the defense in particular was something I questioned. They suffered some early very close losses, but they stayed the course and after three wins in a row (two in overtime, because close games tend to even out eventually) they're in position for bowl eligibility again, and maybe even some improvement. It's not what Arkansas fans wanted this summer, but stability is a step in the right direction.
Whether Bielema can take them beyond that, well...that's a question for the future.
For the young and single reading this...behold a term that you will eventually learn to hate.
One of the interesting things I've noticed with Arkansas is that one of the most important chess pieces in their attack isn't Allen, or Collins, or Henry. It's backup tight end/H-back Jeremy Sprinkle. He's only caught 17 passes on the year, but Enos likes to move him around into a variety of positions to affect the defense in different ways. They'll line him up in a traditional tight end position, split him out wide or in the slot, put him on the wing or just line him up at fullback, often with a lot of motion and shifting. It's not so much about Sprinkle himself so much as how the defense reacts to him that helps dictate what Arkansas will do. He can give them blocking leverage, help Allen to identify coverages and dictate matchups for other players.
From there, Allen is doing a fantastic point guard impression as a quarterback. He has a great knack for just taking whatever the defense will give him, whether that's in the flats on quick hitches and bubble screens, shallow crosses to Henry or bootleg throws. Once he's in rhythm, that's when the play-action shots down the field will come to Drew Morgan, who has been incredibly effective. Arkansas also really likes to put Allen on the edge, where he's just enough of a running threat to keep a defense honest.
Arkansas has been incredibly efficient on offense, converting 46 percent of their third-down situations, although the red zone has been a bit of a struggle. LSU needs to play this one tight on defense: swarm in the running game and close coverage, especially on those short drag routes to Henry. This is probably also the time to start bringing a little pressure. Morgan and Dominque Reed can be dangerous, but Tre'davious White and Kevin Toliver should be able to stay with them in one-on-one coverage.
Zrau made me do it.
One of Arkansas' main problems -- which was kind of glossed over in the offseason, but suspected by this humble correspondent -- has been a defense that has just struggled to replace a number of very good players up front. Trey Flowers (especially him -- gave LSU hell for the last three years), Darius Philon, Marcell Spaight, etc... The Hogs just haven't recruited well enough to replace guys like that quickly, and it's shown in a defense that has allowed 5 yards per play or better in six of eight games this season, and more than 8 three times. The pass defense efficiency is the worst in the SEC, but the run defense has been mediocre, and absolutely gashed by teams like Texas Tech, Auburn and Ole Miss, none of which are in LSU's league when it comes to running the ball.
Coordinator Robb Smith's simplified scheme is kind of talent-specific (Note: all schemes are, but one as basic as Smith's kind of amplifies it). It's a collegiate version of the Cover-Two under that he's learned from guys like ex-Iowa coordinator Norm Parker and Greg Schiano. It's an under front defense that wants to bring a safety down into the box on first down, then drop both on to the hash marks and force the offense to lay up and drive the length of the field in small increments. A defense like that needs two things to work consistently in college: a defensive line that can get in the backfield without help from a blitz and smart, fast linebackers that can cover a lot of ground. Arkansas doesn't have enough of either at the moment, and as a result they've given up a 47-percent conversion rate on third down, a league-high 50 plays of 20 yards or more and have just eight sacks on the season in total.
LSU should have a lot of luck setting the edge in the wide running game with Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, especially when they spread the field. In terms of passing concepts, one of the better Cover-Two beaters is the Smash Concept, which Brandon Harris and Travin Dural have used to convert third downs a couple of times this year. What hasn't happened yet have been the big plays to Malachi Dupre on the corner route into that deep sideline void. There might be a good opportunity here against the league's worst secondary.
Do NOT Expect
It didn't take long for me to get sick of talking about the Alabama game, even with people I typically enjoy talking with or listening to. I know that I'm ready to move on. I'm just not sure how many others are. I KNOW that the football team has to be.
But something tells me that whatever happens this week won't be good enough. If LSU somehow throttles Arkansas, people will want to know where that was last week. There will be groans about every punt, whether the play that preceded it was a run or a pass. It's just going to take time for some people. Look at this game for what it is. Another opportunity to sit in that stadium and enjoy an LSU game at night with your friends and family.
But we only have three games left this regular season. Which also means three more times to watch Leonard Fournette run the football. I suggest you find a way to enjoy them. Because once it's gone, well...y'all know how the offseason goes.