“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?” — The Mad Hatter
— Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass)
Finding LSU’s real weaknesses and determining Arkansas’ best strategies are not as easy some make it out to be. Football gurus focus their suspicions on LSU’s minimal point production and anorexic margins of victory to craft the Tigers as an unlikely ten-win team. When they mix in late fourth-down trickery and chaotic clock management with points and margins, LSU must have ten wins only because the Mad Hatter chews grass he bogards from the field as part of an unstable bayou-voodoo ritual which works with all the proficiency of a short-circuiting Ronald Weasley wand. While the Corndog Nation’s offense distracts the gurus, LSU’s defense quietly performs well enough on its own to win games with minimal point production. With nothing appearing quite as it seems, the Razorbacks’ defense may hold the keys to an Arkansas victory.
Cutting through the nonsense for a moment, LSU ranks first or second in the SEC in the top three categories in which BCS Champions perform the best. The Tigers rank first or second in the SEC in scoring defense, pass efficiency defense, and total defense, and their numbers do not change significantly when only SEC regular season games are considered. In the most significant category of scoring defense, LSU permits SEC opponents an average of 19 points per game. When compared to the 816 regular season SEC games played from 1993 through 2009, teams scoring 19 points or fewer accounted for only 17 percent of all winners. Thus through 11 games LSU’s defensive performance alone is good enough to support nine wins. In the second most important category of past efficiency defense, LSU has an 111 rating against SEC opponents. By comparison, the best pass efficiency defense rating in the country is 93.77 while the worst is above 170. In terms of total defense, LSU gives up 305 yards to it its conference opponents which is only 20 yards or so more per game than it gives up to all opponents as a whole. Overall, LSU is ranked 5th in the nation in total defense. Jumping to the fifth most important category which is rushing defense, the Tigers evidence a weakness in permitting the 167 yards rushing against SEC opponents while permitting only 135 yards rushing per game against opponents overall. Their overall rating ranks the Bengal Tigers at 41st in the nation although their performance against SEC opponents alone is the equivalent of 77th in the nation. As you might expect from LSU’s pass efficiency defense numbers, the Tigers permit only 136 yards per game through the air.
Seemingly inexplicably, Ole Miss scored 36 and Florida racked up 29 points for the highest point totals by SEC opponents against LSU this year. The better teams of Auburn and Alabama managed only 24 points and 21 points respectively. An earlier version of the Mississippi State squad which scored 31 points on Arkansas last week only managed seven points against LSU.
But plainly this is a situation in which something has to give. Against SEC opponents, the Arkansas Razorbacks score an average of 37 points per game versus the 19 points per game which LSU gives up. Only against Alabama have the Razorbacks scored fewer than 31 points against conference opponents. Arkansas’s passing efficiency rating of 162 meets LSU’s defensive passing efficiency rating of 111. While the Hogs blister conference opponents for an average of 351 yards per game passing, LSU only allows an average of 136 yards per game in pass defense. We all know that Arkansas’s rushing offense has improved tremendously over the last few weeks, but the stats show that against all SEC opponents, the Razorbacks average 130 yards per game in rushing offense. Going back to October 23, 2010, the Hogs have managed a more respectable 165 yards per game in rushing offense against SEC opponents. Throwing in UTEP for fun, the Razorbacks have rushed for more than 195 yards per game since October 23, 2010.
Certainly Arkansas will be better off if it imposes its will offensively over LSU, but there is no rhyme or reason to the relationship between points and yardage produced against Corndog Nation. Auburn put up 526 yards of total offense against LSU as it scored 24 points while Florida managed only 243 yards of total offense while putting up 29 points. Mississippi managed 420 yards of total offense and score 36 points but lost by seven.
Something similar is evident for Corndog Nation’s offense. Against Auburn the Bengal Tigers produced a lackluster 243 yards of total offense and 17 points. However, against Tennessee 434 yards of offense produced only 16 points. Category after category of the Mad Hatter’s offense is the same way. Other than the Auburn game, LSU has managed to score more points than its opponents.
In the two games where LSU has arguably struggled the most, against Auburn and against Tennessee, common characteristics of those two games are elusive, but the Mad Hatter cannot hide everything in plain view. It is here that Arkansas’s defense can make some difference. Two things make the schemes different from all others. In both games LSU tried to balance its attack evenly between running plays and pass plays. Against Auburn LSU rushed for 37 carries and attempted 30 passes for a 55% to 45% mix. Against Tennessee, the Bengal Tigers ran 36 times and passed 33 for a 52% to 48% mix. In all other SEC games, LSU ran the ball no less than 64 percent of the time and averaged 68 percent running plays.
It would seem logical to focus Arkansas’s defensive effort on Corndog Nation’s rushing attack since running seems to be LSU’s preferred method of attack. Although LSU’s completion percentage mildly indicates a weakness in those two games, the most damning difference in these two games when compared to all other LSU offensive performances against SEC opponents is LSU’s passing efficiency. In each game, LSU quarterbacks combined for pass efficiency ratings of approximately 90. That said, LSU turned in a passing efficiency rating last week of 170.11 against Ole Miss while Arkansas permitted 262 yards rushing against Mississippi State.
Maybe Corndog Nation tries to run nearly every down. Outside of its SEC game with Vanderbilt, LSU’s highest net rushing total in an SEC game this year is 225 yards against Alabama where it produced 24 points. Even against Tennessee where the Corn Doggers struggled greatly, it ran for a net of 219 yards. In producing the highest point total of the year against Ole Miss, the Bengal Tigers netted 212 yards on the ground.
If the point is not obvious, Corndog Nation’s rushing offense produces results within a typical range from one game to the next regardless of how many points it scores. Against Mississippi, the Tigers completed only 14 passes in the course of producing 43 points while in games against Auburn and Tennessee, ‘Doggers completed more passes and produced no more than 17 points. The dramatic 80 point difference in the passing efficiency rating is the one change.
Without going into the details of the pass efficiency rating, it is best described as an overall performance against the pass including limiting the number of completions, touchdown passes, yards passing, and increasing the number of interceptions. If Arkansas can hold Corndog Nation under 24 points, the Hogs can take the inside track for the Sugar Bowl if Auburn holds form.
Besides the effectiveness of Arkansas’s passing defense, there are a few other things to look for during the course of the game. LSU has played seven of their last nine games at home. They have played outside Tiger stadium against Auburn, Florida, and Vanderbilt with their last trip occurring five weeks ago. Coincidentally it’s also the last time they let the Mad Hatter out.
Watch for LSU fumbles in this game. The Tigers put the ball on the ground on average two times per game but get the ball back on average one of those times per game. In SEC play, the Tigers average 1 interception per game.
LSU relies on field goals for 30% of its points in SEC games this year. Josh Jasper, LSU’s kicker, has a career long field goal of 53 yards which means that LSU is within his kicking range at the Arkansas 36 yard line or so. Jasper is 17 for 19 on the season.
If Arkansas’s offense goes full throttle all game and the defense protects well against the pass, the Hogs win this game by 10!