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November 24, 2011

Confident LSU can't look past Arkansas

Although Arkansas is ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings, has lost only to Alabama and fields one of the nation's most explosive offenses, some seem to view the Razorbacks as merely the next step No. 1 LSU must take on the way to the national championship game.

LSU coach Les Miles isn't among those taking a victory for granted, but he is extremely confident the Tigers can post a 12th consecutive victory and win the SEC West.

"We play a style of football that makes it difficult on our opponent," Miles said earlier this week. "We have no turnovers on offense. Our defense doesn't allow the other teams to go downfield, and it gets turnovers. We play good field position with good special teams. I am not surprised by the success we've had."

That's fair. But some may be surprised by the success Arkansas has had against the Tigers.

That game has produced a series of nail-biters in recent seasons. The past five meetings have been decided by an average margin of 3.8 points. It's only that wide because last season's winning margin was eight - and Arkansas prevailed 31-23.

In fact, Arkansas has won three of the past four in the series and LSU's victory in that span came in overtime.

Even when LSU won the national championship in 2007 the Tigers lost to Arkansas 50-48 in triple overtime.

The Razorbacks have more than recent history going for them, too.

Quarterback Tyler Wilson directs one of the nation's most dangerous passing offenses. The Razorbacks have scored at least 31 points nine times and have exceeded 40 six times.

"Wilson gets the ball out of his hands quickly," Miles said. "He makes real quality decisions. They have three receivers in the top 10 in the conference. ... Arkansas does things that effectively challenge any defense. They may spread you thinner. We have to play our assignments and tackle crisply. We have to cover well and we would like to get in his backfield as often as we can.

"I think we have some guys who can do that."

LSU definitely can apply pressure. The Tigers have sacked opposing quarterbacks 27 times this season, and have allowed just 11 TDs this season and just 50 total points in seven SEC games. In short, they've shut down every opponent they've faced.

Well, everyone except West Virginia, which passed for 463 yards in a closer-than-it-sounds 47-21 LSU victory earlier this season.

"I thought West Virginia has the best receiving corps we have gone against," LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu said. "These guys are similar to West Virginia. They have three or four guys who can take it the distance.

"We'll have our hands full. We definitely can't take a play off. We gave up three or four big plays last year and that turned the game. We have to read our keys."

Of course, the Razorbacks' defense must hold up against LSU's powerful running game.

When two highly ranked teams collide in games with championship implications, victories rarely come easy.

No matter how confident a coach may be.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Arkansas run offense vs. LSU run defense: The preseason injury to star RB Knile Davis threatened to cripple the Razorbacks' running game, but they've rebounded nicely. Speedy Dennis Johnson has emerged as a big-play threat and has rushed for at least 86 yards in each of the past three games. Ronnie Wingo is a powerful alternative. LSU ranks fourth in the nation in run defense. The Tigers have allowed fewer than 150 rushing yards in every game and fewer than 100 in six. They have a dominant line, active linebackers and physical defensive backs who seem to relish providing run support. Edge: LSU

Arkansas pass offense vs. LSU pass defense: Hogs QB Tyler Wilson directs the nation's 10th-ranked passing attack. He's blessed with an accurate arm and perhaps the best group of receivers in the country. Senior Jarius Wright has caught 61 passes for 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's one of four Razorback receivers with at least 29 receptions and more than 400 receiving yards. But pass protection has been an issue, which is a red flag against an LSU pass rush that has produced 27 sacks. The scary part is the pass rush isn't the strength of a defense that ranks fifth in the nation against the pass. There is no better set of corners than Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. LSU has allowed fewer than 200 passing yards in seven consecutive games. Edge: LSU

LSU run offense vs. Arkansas run defense: LSU has a relentless and physical line that paves the way for a deep group of talented tailbacks. Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue have rushed for at least 445 yards apiece. QB Jordan Jefferson is a running threat, too. The Tigers have rushed for more than 200 yards in four of their past six games. Arkansas has tightened up substantially against the run in the past three games; the Hogs have given up no more than 138 rushing yards in that span. LB Jerry Franklin has posted a team-leading 87 tackles, and it's up to the defensive tackles to keep LSU's interior linemen occupied so Franklin can roam and make tackles. Edge: LSU

LSU pass offense vs. Arkansas pass defense: Jefferson and Jarrett Lee have shared quarterback duties. Although Lee has thrown for 1,306 yards and 14 TDs, Jefferson has seen more and more playing time of late and been the leading passer in the past three games. WRs Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr. have posted modest numbers, but that's just a by-product of LSU's run-oriented offense. They're talented and dangerous. LSU has allowed just 10 sacks. That will pose a challenge for Arkansas' pass rush, which has recorded 20 sacks. E Jake Bequette has eight of them and is one of the SEC's best defensive playmakers despite being injured for a portion of the season. The Razorbacks have allowed fewer than 250 passing yards in each of the past eight games and have allowed one touchdown pass or less in each of the past four. S Tramain Thomas has four interceptions and is the best player in the secondary. Edge: Arkansas

Arkansas special teams vs. LSU special teams: Both have explosive return men. Arkansas has returned five kicks for touchdowns - three punts and two kickoffs. WR Joe Adams averages 16.2 yards per punt return and has three scores. Johnson and Marquel Wade have kickoff returns for a score. Conversely, LSU's Claiborne averages 28.4 yards on kickoff returns and has a TD. Mathieu averages 9.8 on punt returns. Overall, LSU does a better job in kick coverage. LSU K Drew Alleman has hit 14-of-16, with one miss coming from 50 yards. His longest field goal is 44 yards. Meanwhile, Arkansas' Zach Hocker has hit from 50 yards, but is erratic beyond 40. He's converted 17-of-23 overall. LSU P Brad Wing averages 43 yards, but more than half of his 40 punts have been killed inside the 20. Arkansas' Dylan Breeding averages 44.6 yards. Edge: Arkansas

Arkansas coaching staff vs. LSU coaching staff: Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino is one of the premier offensive minds in college football. He's 74-25 overall and 33-16 in four seasons at Arkansas. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson doesn't have elite talent on his side of the ball but generally does a good job squeezing all he can out of his available talent. Les Miles is 101-38 in his career as a head coach, including 73-17 at LSU. Yes, he's unorthodox and doesn't mind taking risks. But those risks have paid off at such an alarming rate that it can't be dismissed as dumb luck. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is recognized among the best in his field. Offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa is in his first season calling plays for LSU. Edge: LSU

X-Factor: How will Arkansas react to the death of freshman TE Garrett Uekman, who died earlier this week of an undiagnosed heart condition? A loss like that can understandably leave a team emotionally drained and unfocused. At the same time, tragedy sometimes can bring those involved closer together and lead to an inspired performance.

LSU will win if: The Tigers have to get their running game going; they don't want to have to count on the passing of Jefferson or Lee. Defensive, pressuring Wilson is vital. Though LSU's secondary is excellent, so are Arkansas' receivers for long periods.

Arkansas will win if: The Hogs must have some success in the running game to slow down LSU's pass rush; they can't be one-dimensional. Defensively, they must not be overpowered up front and have to force LSU into third-and-long situations. Mostly, Arkansas must avoid turnovers. LSU leads the nation in turnover margin (plus 18) and has 24 takeaways.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: LSU 24, Arkansas 21
David Fox: LSU 28, Arkansas 17
Mike Huguenin: LSU 31, Arkansas 17
Steve Megargee: LSU 31, Arkansas 17

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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