- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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No. 17 LSU (8-3, 4-3 SEC) renews its annual Thanksgiving weekend rivalry with Arkansas (3-8, 0-7) today, with the “Golden Boot” at stake. The Tigers have taken home the 175-pound statue seven times in the last decade and are big favorites to do so again.
Let's take a look at five key points in today's game in Baton Rouge:
Where did that come from?: Prior to last Saturday's dominant win against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, we last saw LSU getting run off the field by top-ranked Alabama. The Crimson Tide pulled away in the second half and rolled up 372 yards of total offense in its 38-17 victory. Against the Aggies, however, John Chavis' defense looked like a completely different group from the one that produced mediocre results for most of the season. LSU held A&M to 299 yards, its fewest since totaling 226 in a 65-10 loss to Oklahoma in 2009. Manziel posted a career-low 14.9 Total QBR against the Tigers, and A&M's 13-game streak of scoring at least 40 points -- tied for the longest in major college football history -- also came to a screeching halt. We say all that to say this: maybe that confidence-building performance means that Chavis' young defense is starting to turn a corner as we near the end of the season.
Struggling Hogs: On that front, Arkansas' offense shouldn't pose much of a threat as long as the Tigers defend the run adequately. LSU has had its ups and downs on that front -- the Tigers rank sixth in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 145.8 yards per game -- but running the ball is all Arkansas has done with any competence. The Razorbacks are 26th nationally and fifth in the SEC with an average of 211.1 rushing yards per game, but they are an atrocious passing team. They rank dead last in the conference and 115th nationally with an average of 145.8 passing yards per game. Keep an eye on Razorbacks runners Alex Collins (179-998, 4 TDs) and Jonathan Williams (137-842, 4 TDs), who are about the only offensive players who could create any headaches for the Tigers today.
Crazy series: It was clear even before the season started that first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema would need time to transition from predecessor Bobby Petrino's pass-happy scheme to the personnel needed to run the ground-based attack that he employed at Wisconsin. But nobody would have predicted that Bielema's debut season would be as ugly as it has been, with the Hogs entering Friday's game on an eight-game losing streak and losing by an average of three touchdowns per game over that stretch. That said, this has been a crazy series at times in the last decade -- most notably the 2007 game, when the top-ranked Tigers lost to Darren McFadden and unranked Arkansas 50-48 in triple overtime. No. 12 Arkansas also upset No. 5 LSU 31-23 in 2010. But overall, LSU has held the upper hand in this series over the last decade, posting a 7-3 record overall and 4-1 mark at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers are 6-0 in Death Valley this season, while Arkansas is 0-4 on the road.
Bringing the heat: Part of the reason that LSU experienced so much success last weekend was that its blitzes were extremely effective when Manziel dropped back to pass. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Tigers brought five or more pass rushers on 37.3 of Manziel's dropbacks and he completed just 3 of 16 passes, tossing two interceptions. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen has games where he has attempted 41, 36 and 32 passes, respectively, this season, so if LSU builds an early lead, the Tigers could have another opportunity to let their blitz wreak havoc once the Razorbacks have to pass more than they would prefer.
Keep it grounded: If LSU builds that early lead, it would not be at all surprising to see the Tigers grind out the win on the ground despite quarterback Zach Mettenberger ranking fourth nationally in opponent-adjusted Total QBR (87.8) and wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. (56 catches, 1,101 yards, 8 TDs) and Jarvis Landry (67-1,059, 10 TDs) ranking third and fourth, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards per game. LSU's aerial attack can certainly be effective, but after rushing for 324 yards against Texas A&M -- 149 from Terrence Magee and 76 from Jeremy Hill -- the Tigers seem content to let the ground game put away wins in their traditional style under Les Miles. A productive running game is certainly an indicator of success for LSU. In its eight wins, LSU is averaging 242.25 rushing yards. In its three losses, its rushing average drops to 78 yards per game.