LSU is back in Death Valley for the first time since the big win over Auburn, and if fans still want to celebrate the afterglow of the landmark Bama win, they can enjoy the team against a pretty terrible Arkansas team.
The Hogs come in 2-8 overall, with only one FBS win this year and no head coach. Chad Morris was fired two weeks ago, and tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. has the interim gig to close things out.
LSU may have drawn a conference opponent for the annual SOCON Saturday weekend, but for all intents and purposes, this might as well be a G5 guarantee game. This Arkansas team is very bad, and your No. 1 Tigers should have no problem taking care of business and emptying the bench here.
What To Watch For On Saturday Night
Whenever the idea of “trap games” etc... come up, Ed Orgeron’s attitude has always been to the effect of “fuck that, it ain’t about them, it’s about us.” And when LSU’s a 44 point favorite — likely the highest spread ever for an SEC conference game — against a team with an interim head coach, that’s especially true.
This game is about the Tigers playing to their standard. Dominating an opponent that they are better than for 60 minutes. We didn’t see that last week against Ole Miss, as the Rebels were able to rip off a bunch of big plays to turn a 28-0 blowout into a Big 12-style shootout. Was the game ever in doubt? Or even really close? No. But it was a missed opportunity nevertheless.
LSU, especially this Tiger offense, can name its number against this Arkansas team. They’re allowing more than six yards per play, with a league-worse 48.8-percent success rate. So an offense has a successful play, defined as 50 percent of needed yards on first down, 70 percent on second or 100 percent on third, more than half of the time.
Even with an offensive line that is still reshuffling due to injuries, Joe Burrow should have no problem adding on to his dominant season along with his receivers. And thus, do that very thing, score touchdowns and then cede the stage to Myles Brennan and the backups so that they can get a chance at in-game development.
Of course, the defense will have to hold up their end as well. They can’t change what happened last week, but they’ve shown they’re capable of doing little things well. Tackle. Stay home and maintain gap responsibility. Arkansas has one good player in running back Rakeem Boyd, but there’s no John Rhys Plumlee-type that can house a play on one missed tackle. They’re going to likely play three different quarterbacks, and I’m not sure there’s one that can make a big difference here. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they try to use Boyd in some Wildcat looks, a la what worked for Ole Miss last week.
LSU’s cornerbacks can contain the outside receivers. The question will be the linebackers, safeties and nickel backs, all of whom had a pretty crappy game a week ago. They can’t erase that performance, but they can improve from it. And if this team is going to get to the places they want to, it needs to happen.
A win here will officially clinch the SEC West and a trip to Atlanta to face Georgia. As stakes go, those aren’t small ones. But as discussed earlier, with Arkansas in the position they’re in, this game also offers the Tigers a chance to keep developing additional weapons for that match-up in Atlanta, and onward. More game reps for backups like Racey McMath, Stephen Sullivan or Trey Palmer at receiver, or John Emery Jr. at tailback.
And every player is dealing with some sort of injury right now, but hopefully LSU’s coaches can get some rest for some of the more banged up guys like Grant Delpit and Austin Deculus. The latter seems unlikely to play this week once again, and as of Thursday night it seems that Delpit will sit out as well. Both are for the best, in my opinion. Freshman Maurice Hampton looks primed to make his first start. He’s been mostly a special teams guy, and has battled injuries himself. But given that he’s likely to be another top-shelf baseball prospect in two more years, he might as well get on the field now.
Hampton’s opportunity is the same as Brennan, or Emery or Palmer or even someone like Damone Clark or Micah Baskerville. These are all guys that will, at minimum, step into bigger roles next year, or could provide some valuable depth in the postseason. Take advantage of this opportunity.
Brennan hasn’t exactly shown much in his limited mop-up snaps thus far. A strong performance would be nice to see here.
What The Hell Happened?
Since there isn’t a ton to talk about from the LSU end of this, I thought I might weigh in on what’s happened at Arkansas.
Firing a second-year coach is a tough way to fly for any football program, but it’s hard to argue against it for Arkansas with Chad Morris. When you go 2-10 out of the chute, most will understand that you have a big job in front of you. But you have to show some progress in year two, and beating Portland State (not even a very good FCS team) by seven and losing to bad San Jose State and Western Kentucky teams just isn’t it.
Morris was roundly considered a strong hire at the time. He was a massively successful assistant who improved his record every year at his first head coaching stop at SMU. Call it the lesson of hiring the hot name of the moment. We’ve seen many a seemingly dynamic, smart young coach fizzle out after a hot start.
So where does the program go from here?
Answering that question starts with asking some other hard ones about what exactly this program is, and what this program wants to be.
Success in college football really comes down to the acquisition, development and deployment of assets. Those assets generally involve money or players. The former is a huge part of the latter, both over and under the table. We’ll stick to the over part. Money helps you hire good coaches and recruiters, build great facilities and generally make your program into the kind of place that attracts players.
Attracting players, however, still requires either proximity — a talent-rich area — or a brand that has an attractive cache. And Arkansas has neither of these advantages. The state’s small, and doesn’t produce a ton of big-time talent on its own. It borders talent-rich areas, but Fayetteville itself is fairly removed in the northwest corner of the state.
On top of that, Arkansas has the direct competition of LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn in its division. All programs that have that proximity advantage. For ball clubs like that, hiring a CEO type coach that knows how to recruit, motivate, hire good assistants and handle the management of that kind of operation is always a safe bet. Coaches that excel in those areas don’t necessarily have to be tactical specialists (and guys like Nick Saban that have all of those skill sets are incredibly rare).
Is it possible for a program to build the kind of brand that can help overcome the lack of a proximity advantage? Absolutely. But it takes time. It’s a full build, from foundation to ceiling. And then there’s raising that ceiling to go from winner, to consistently strong program to being one of the true elite powers.
But programs without the proximity/brand advantages do have a shortcut: specialization. Diversify your program schematically, change the talent pool you’re dipping into and thus, the competition you’re competing against for that talent. Likewise, you become a more difficult on-field match-up in relation to your peers. For lack of a better term, a pain in the ass that nobody wants to play on a short-week of prep, because that preparation becomes completely asymmetrical to the rest of the season.
The most obvious way for Arkansas to do this would be to switch to a triple-option coach, be it Ken Niumatalolo (or his offensive coordinator Ivan Jasper) of Navy, Jeff Monken of Army or Tulane’s Willie Fritz. The Razorbacks would near instantly become the biggest pain in the ass in the SEC West.
Hiring a true Air Raid coach like Mike Leach could be a similar change-up.
But this model has a lower ceiling; you aren’t winning a national title running the triple. But with a higher floor, you have a chance to build some consistency — which has been sorely lacking in Fayetteville for a long time now. Build up the brand as winner, and in a few years you’ll have the support to try and keep building with a more conventional coach. With the brand name that will be a little more attractive, maybe you can then transition out of that option era to a more conventional type of program (like what Georgia Tech is trying to do now under Geoff Collins).
Think of it as a shortcut. A way around the wall that you’ll be beating your head against if you just try to hire another big-name coach to compete against the rest of this division.
But it’s not an easy sell to athletic directors, or boosters, that want to compete for championships, and want to do it quickly.
Arkansas will likely look towards Gus Malzahn again. If I’m Auburn, I’m certainly interested in getting out of an extremely one-sided contract. They aren’t likely to do much better from an overall record standpoint, but there’s also something to be said for just ending a marriage you aren’t happy in. For Malzahn, it’s a downgrade in program, but a possible upgrade in comfort, given his history in The Natural State, and a chance to reset his coaching clock, so to speak. Start over, with a new contract.
If that doesn’t work out, there’s Memphis’ Mike Norvell, or Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz (per Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody). I’m not sure either can break through what we’ve already seen from the Razorbacks post Houston Nutt. That former coach would fit the possible CEO model of a charismatic motivator (he can damn sure handle that part of the job) who recruits and hires good assistants, but we’ve already seen it blow up in his face when he originally brought Malzahn up from the high school ranks.
The Arkansas program is always interesting. I’m not sure the next coach will be what they want, but I’m pretty sure it will make for an interesting story.