Nary a soul in Arkansas or Louisiana will even try to convince anyone that the Razorbacks have a superior roster to LSU. Maybe once every several years will Arkansas get lucky in that regard, but for the most part, the Tigers are owners of one of the best on-paper collections of players in college football.
Sometimes, though, it’s just that: paper Tigers.
Arkansas owns a two-game winning streak over LSU and can stretch it to three for the first time in almost 90 years with a win Saturday. Again, like usual, it appears the Razorbacks are disadvantaged individually at a position-by-position basis. But let’s take a closer peek.
Austin Allen may not be the favorite for first-team All-SEC thanks to Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, but we’re still talking about a guy who, now that Trevor Knight and Chad Kelly are out for the year, is the clear, far-and-away, not-even-close best passer in the SEC. He’s third in yards and completions, fourth in completion percentage and second in passer rating. He’s tied for the lead in passing touchdowns. Allen has been everything Arkansas could have hoped for from a first-year starter and, really, for my money, the best quarterback in the league, regardless.
LSU’s Danny Etling is mid-pack or lower-third in most SEC passing categories. And he’s still better than what LSU has had the last two seasons. That makes the Tigers dangerous offensively considering their ground game.
Etling can throw the deep ball but he isn’t asked to make things happen often in the offense. When he has been asked to, Etling has had a tendency to be error-prone, as evidenced by his 7-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Still, he’s an upgrade for the Tigers, and that could change the outcome.
Even with all the stout defenses Arkansas has faced in the SEC, Rawleigh Williams III is still second in the league in rushing. It bears repeating Williams is a guy who came awfully close to never playing football again after breaking his neck last year against Auburn. He’s still out there balling. He’s tough (obviously), quick enough, fast enough, strong enough. While he isn’t what is typically thought of as an elite back with those traits, and he has an offensive line that has been spotty, Williams produces, anyway. His back-up, Devwah Whaley, has come on as of late, too, as a freshman and they provide Arkansas some legitimacy in the backfield.
It’s nowhere near what LSU has going on, though. Leonard Fournette is still, when healthy, the best running back in the country. You could make a highlight video of just him running dudes over. Now, he’s missed three games this year with an ankle injury and has only 700 yards because of it, but he’s also mostly healthy now. And when he isn’t in the game, Derrius Guice has shown he’s more than capable. Guice has 629 yards and one of the Arkansas defensive coaches called him the best No. 2 running back in the land. As good as Arkansas is here, LSU is better.
Same old story at Arkansas. That’s a good thing. Early in the year, it was Keon Hatcher. Midway through it was Jared Cornelius. Lately it’s been Drew Morgan. Arkansas’ top three receivers make up one of the best trios in the league. Cody Hollister and Dominique Reed, the No. 4 and 5 guys, have tailed off, but remain competent options and Jeremy Sprinkle, the tight end, is tied for second in the SEC in touchdown grabs from the position. Top to bottom, this is the best unit on the Arkansas roster.
LSU’s is good, too, but more from a potential standpoint. Because the Tigers run more than pass and because Etling isn’t necessarily dynamic, guys like Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre haven’t had as many opportunities to show their stuff. In fact, no LSU receiver has registered more than five catches in a single game this year. Of course, that also points to an offense that spreads it around when it does pass it. Still, potential is one thing, results are another.
The Razorbacks got their first complete performance of the SEC season last week against Florida. The injection of Johnny Gibson into the starting lineup at right guard seems to have sparked something. Arkansas needed a pile-mover, and Gibson is the biggest one they have. Playing next to Frank Ragnow, the center, certainly helps as Ragnow is maybe the best center in the country. Dan Skipper has been solid at left tackle, too. But Florida was the outlier of the season. We’ll have to wait and see it again to determine whether it’s an actual trend upward.
LSU is somewhat in the same boat, though its situation is not seemingly as dire as Arkansas’ once was. The Tigers have moved players all around the line in an effort to better open lanes for the runners and protect Etling. Ethan Pocic and Will Clapp have been like Ragnow and Skipper, but right tackle has been a problem. Great defenses have troubled the Tigers up front, and Arkansas showed last week that it can show visions of greatness on occasion.
When Bret Bielema got hold of this unit and made the changes he wanted to make last week, they shined. Jeremiah Ledbetter went from tackle to end. McTelvin Agim started getting more snaps. Arkansas’ front four was supposed to be great from the word, but it hasn’t been. The Razorbacks have been OK at times, good sometimes, then pretty rough in others. It’s been up and down, but we saw Saturday what’s possible. It’s just a matter of doing it again.
Arden Key. Davn Godchaux. Lewis Neal. The big three of the LSU front line, they’re run-stoppers and quarterback-sackers. They can wreak havoc on offensive lines with odd lines and with talent. The Tigers haven’t gotten the praise of some others — think Auburn and Alabama — but they’ve been fundamental and occasionally play-making all year. If the SEC is all about the lines, LSU’s defensive one versus Arkansas’ offensive one is the matchup to watch.
It feels like things are on the upswing here for Arkansas. Brooks Ellis had maybe his best game of the year against Florida. Dwayne Eugene has taken steps up from the back of the ranks to be a competent starter opposite him. But it’s still a unit short on depth and that shows lapses on occasion, mental or physical. Those have to be limited against LSU.
Kendell Beckwith is the No. 2 tackler in the SEC. It’s a deserved spot, behind only Vanderbilt star Zach Cunningham. Beckwith is a complete linebacker, too, capable in coverage, rushing and, his best trait, stopping the run. Duke Riley tends to pick up any scraps, too, as he is the No. 6 tackler in the league. Very little gets by the LSU second level.
Cornerback was rarely a problem with Arkansas this year. Yes, these guys have had their ill moments, but Jared Collins, Ryan Pulley and Henre’ Toliver have been mostly solid. It’s been safety — Josh Liddell, Santos Ramirez and De’Andre Coley — where the issues have been. But those issues also looked largely alleviated against Florida. Saturday will be tough on them, though, as they must help down with the LSU running attack, but still be wary of those play-action passes over the top, which the Tigers love.
Last week Arkansas had to play the best cornerback in the SEC in Jalen Tabor. This week, it gets the next best one. Tre’Davious White is a shutdown type. Balls don’t get thrown his direction often. When they are, he’s as solid as they come in tackling. Over the top, his help is Jamal Adams, who can tackle as well as any healthy safety in the SEC. By the way, the Razorbacks put up 31 points on that Florida defense with the star defensive back. It’s not out of the question they do it again.
Color me disappointed Toby Baker didn’t make the semifinalist list for the Ray Guy award. He’s the best punter I’ve seen this year. He has a big leg and his directional ability is among the best I’ve seen in the SEC in recent years. Adam McFain has held the kicking job down since he took over a few weeks ago and there are no problems there. The return game, though? Still severely lacking. Just a little bit there and Arkansas could put up a few more points per game.
Colby Delahoussaye was supposed to be one of the better kickers in the SEC, but he’s just 5 of 8 on field goals this year. White is a dangerous return man in the punt game, but kickoff returns are just meh. Josh Growden is sheer middle of the pack in punting.
Edge: Arkansas, believe it or not