- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Could this be the week that Arkansas ends its 17-game losing streak in SEC play? The oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to think so, setting the Razorbacks (4-5, 0-5 SEC) as a narrow favorite to beat No. 17 LSU (7-3, 3-3) on Saturday night.
Here are four key storylines to watch as kickoff approaches:
Snow Tigers: The weather could become a major storyline in this game, and it will be interesting to see whether it impacts the style of play in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
As of Thursday afternoon, the weather forecast for Saturday’s game called for temperatures in the 20s at kickoff along with a 10 percent chance of snow.
If that prediction comes through, it would be the coldest game in Les Miles’ tenure as the Tigers’ coach. To date, the coldest temperature at kickoff since Miles arrived at LSU in 2005 was 43 degrees for a 2005 game at Ole Miss. The Tigers have played just three games under Miles in which the temperature was 50 degrees or cooler at kickoff (the others were 47 degrees for a 2012 game at Arkansas and 50 degrees for a 2008 home game against Troy).
It could also be the coldest LSU game from at least the last 40 years. According to LSU’s online archive of box scores, the coldest temperature at kickoff since 1974 was 31 degrees for the 1992 LSU-Arkansas game in Fayetteville. The Tigers played 28 games in that timespan when the temperature was 50 degrees or cooler at kickoff and just seven when it was 40 or cooler.
Run and run some more: If it does snow, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see two run-heavy teams rely even more heavily on the ground game.
ESPN Stats & Information reports that LSU has run the ball an SEC-high 67 percent of the time this season, and its rushing success seems to have a correlation to its wins and losses. The Tigers are 5-0 when they rush for at least 200 yards and 2-3 when they do not.
Likewise, Arkansas has run for more than 200 yards in all four of its wins, but it has broken the 200-yard mark just once in its five losses (in an overtime loss to Texas A&M).
So if Arkansas’ backfield duo of Jonathan Williams (137 carries, 877 yards, 10 TDs) and Alex Collins (134-840, 10 TDs) enjoys more success moving the ball on the ground than LSU’s Leonard Fournette (152-736, 7 TDs) and Terrence Magee (81-447, 3 TDs), the Razorbacks are likely the favorite to win. LSU senior Kenny Hilliard (87-431, 6 TDs) is questionable to play after injuring his shoulder against Alabama last Saturday.
Loading the box: The worse the weather, the more likely it will be that the two defenses crowd the line of scrimmage to defend the run. That would be nothing new for the three top running backs in this game.
Fournette (67) has the most carries of any SEC back against defenses with eight or more defenders in the box. Williams (59) and Collins (56) are next in line behind the Tigers’ star freshman.
ESPN Stats & Information reports that Fournette is averaging 4.1 yards per carry against defenses with eight or more men in the box and 5.4 yards per carry against seven or fewer defenders.
LSU defense trending upward: It didn’t seem like it at the time, but the Tigers’ 41-7 loss to Auburn was a turning point in their season – particularly for their run defense.
In LSU’s first three games against Power 5 opponents (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn), the Tigers surrendered 289.3 rushing yards per game. In the last four games (Florida, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Alabama), LSU gave up 109.3 rushing yards per game.
They have done an excellent job of shutting down drives in a hurry, too. Overall, LSU has forced 46 three-and-outs this season, which is tied for third in the FBS. Of those 46 three-and-outs, 18 came in the last four games – seven of which were by Alabama last week.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter (24 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) was a key figure in that four-game stretch, as were weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander (31 tackles, 5 TFLs), middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (30 tackles, 2 TFLs) and defensive end Jermauria Rasco (28 tackles, 2 TFLs).
In the last three games, LSU’s defense has allowed just two touchdowns in regulation: passes by Ole Miss and Alabama. The Tigers haven’t surrendered a rushing touchdown since the first quarter of the Florida game on Oct. 11.
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