Over the last few years, the only thing more predictable than Alabama wearing down LSU is Arkansas being on hand to pick at the carcass a bit.
Last year, one of Ed Orgeron’s data points for his full-time head coaching candidacy was a dominant 38-10 win over the Hogs in Fayetteville. Now, he’s right back in the same position. A frustrating loss to Alabama — but one that came with a glimmer of hope for the future. A glimmer that can turn into a solid ray of sunshine if the Tigers can finish strong on the season: three straight conference games, all of which LSU will be solidly favored in, putting the 2017 team in position to finish 6-2 in conference play and the possibility of a New Year’s Six bowl game if some other dominoes fall the right way.
But we all know you can’t spell “big spoiler” without P-I-G. Here comes a 4-5 Arkansas team with a head coach that is scratching and clawing for
the last piece of chicken his job. The Razorbacks need to find two wins in their last three games to get a bowl game, meaning they’ll have to pull an upset either this week against LSU, or next against Mississippi State.
Oh, and did I mention this game kicks off at 11 a.m.? There’s almost no doubt that the Tiger Stadium crowd will be half asleep (among those that bother to show up). Will the Tigers be ready?
If they are, there’s potential for a pretty nice start to our college football Saturday.
What To Watch For On Saturday
This game, and that God-awful trophy, have always meant a lot to Arkansas. They have 13 Louisiana natives on their roster, several of which did not receive LSU scholarship offers. That always adds a splash of juice to this game, and no matter how futile the effort might seem, I’d be surprised if the Razorbacks didn’t come out of the tunnel looking to try and ruin a morning.
That said, this is not a very good Arkansas team. The record is bad enough, but the Hogs rank 92nd in S&P+, well behind in-state Arkansas State. They’ve lost to South Carolina by 24, TCU by 21 and to both Auburn and Alabama by 32. They managed to break a three-game losing streak with dramatic comebacks against Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina, but...well...enough said.
This all will almost certainly lead to an expensive exit for Bret Bielema after this season. BERT showed some promise in building Arkansas in the image of his successful Wisconsin teams, but in the end it seems like that was never truly a model that could be successfully replicated.
Successful football programs always come down to two things: asset acquisition and asset deployment/development. The assets, of course, are players. Top programs can attract the best players either through proximity or prestige, facilities, etc... or, they can create some sort of systemic specialization that gives them an advantage in bringing in that talent. That’s where teams that run the triple-option or other specific styles of the Air Raid live. They can bring in a 6-foot, 185-pound option quarterback that LSU or Alabama or another program may view as a safety, or a sawed-off slot receiver that the other programs may overlook completely.
Bielema wants a program that specializes in line play, both offensive and defensive. At Wisconsin, you can do that — their walk-on program developed over the last 20 years or so has perfected finding burly 6-5, 250-pound kids that can slap on 50 pounds in a college weight program. It’s been one of their true resources from a talent perspective from Barry Alvarez, through Bielema to now with Paul Chryst. At Arkansas, a program in a remote portion of one of the least-populated states in the SEC, if you want to field baddass offensive and defensive lines, you better go out and recruit them.
Arkansas hasn’t finished in the top 20 in the 247 Sports composite team recruiting rankings since Bielema arrived in Fayetteville in 2013, and it shows this year. Arkansas ranks dead last in the SEC in tackles-for-loss allowed, 101st nationally in adjusted sack rate, and 84th in defensive havoc rate, with an SEC-low 34 tackles for loss as a team.
When you live in the same neighborhood as annual recruiting powers like LSU, Bama, Texas A&M and Auburn, that’s a really tough way to live. The Razorbacks’ next hire has to either be able to recapture some of the program’s old recruiting grounds in Texas, or tap into other veins of talent through some sort of specialization.
Keep It Tight
Defense is probably the area where this talent gap has shown up the most. Arkansas has transitioned from a 4-3, Tampa-Two style under Robb Smith last season, to a 3-4 look under Paul Rhoads. The former Iowa State head coach was a pretty successful DC at Pitt and at Auburn in the 2000s, and he’s shifted this Razorback group to a 3-4, using a style he favored in the Big 12, the 3-4 “Tite” front:
SB Nation contributor Ian Boyd has more on the style here, via Saturdays Down South. The Tite front eschews the “over” or “under” line shifts in favor of what could be considered a more classic “double eagle” 3-4, with a zero-technique nose tackle and the ends aligned either in the three- or four-I-technique positions (three-tech is on the guard’s outside shoulder, four-I is on the tackle’s inside shoulder. The outside linebackers, designated “Razor” and “Hog” over-hang the front and will often line up off the line, trying to apex the offensive line and the slot receivers.
It’s a style designed for spread offenses, specifically teams that like to pull guards on power/counter read plays, because the defensive ends will be in textbook position to plug the B gap, push a run outside where the play-side outside and inside linebackers should be free to pursue. Most coordinators like to pair the front with quarters coverage behind it, where each defensive back maintains deep leverage on a designated receiver and breaks on every route to the outside.
The Hogs have favored off coverages to date, but that might change this week, given the struggles LSU’s receivers have had with physical coverage, especially when Danny Etling is under pressure. Rhoads prefers to keep his safeties deep, but I’ll wager that will have to change with Matt Canada’s jet-sweep look. He will try to mix the front and bring a rusher from an odd angle, should LSU wind up in a third-and-long situation.
But given that this group allows more than 6 yards per carry on first down, LSU should be able to stay on schedule with a game plan similar to what worked against Alabama. Mix the jet-sweep with zone runs, and make use of the F-back to help against the overhanging linebackers. Split-zone runs and pin-and-pull looks should help deal with the tite front and get Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams into some space.
Run the ball, set up play-action and plus passing situations for Etling, and LSU should be able to make a lot of hay in this one. If Arkansas keeps those outside linebackers in space, don’t be surprised if Canada goes at the C-gap with some of the jet/power or counter looks that were so successful against Ole Miss, with the off guard and a tight end or F-back pulling through.
Cross It Out
Offensively, talent drain has been a problem for Arkansas as well, especially after Rawleigh Williams’ unexpected retirement due to injury in the spring. The 2016 receiver group has proved difficult to replace, and with a bad offensive line, Austin Allen regressed before suffering a shoulder injury and giving way to BERT-sized freshman Cole Kelley.
The Razorbacks haven’t been truly awful on offense, but they don’t really excel in any particular area. Dan Enos remains one of the more creative offensive coordinators out there — similar to Canada in his use of motions and tight ends and fullbacks to create leverage and extra gaps in a defense. This group just doesn’t have a lot of horses. Kelley shows some potential. He has the arm you’d expect from a 6-7, 270-pound quarterback, although not exactly a cannon. He’s also willing to take off and try to pick up what he can on the ground. It’s slow going, but he’s not exactly easy to take down. In some ways, Kelley reminds me of Jared Lorenzen.
Still, Dave Aranda’s gameplan will be a lot like last year. Try to flood the middle of the field against the crossing routes Enos likes to call, and attack the Razorback protections on passing downs. The pass-rush just has to be prepared to wrap up on Kelley, low when possible.
Arkansas has been awful throwing the ball on third-down this year, but watch for them to try and involve tailback T.J. Hammonds in the screen game to try and stress LSU’s younger linebackers.
This is more than just a winnable game for LSU, but a chance to make another impression in a national TV time slot, if they can follow the script.