It might be more appropriate to go with a Thanksgiving theme with our weekly pre-game Top 10 Things to Watch as we wind up this successful Arkansas football season. I write this while waiting for my smoker to finish its job with the ribs and turkey.
I know Razorback fans are thankful for Bobby Petrino, Ryan Mallett, D. J. Williams, Jake Bequette, Jerico Nelson, Knile Davis, Joe Adams and the rest of this fine football team. It's safe also to assume that there are thankful hearts as fans think about the bowl possibilities, some of them in warm locations -- and that's nice considering it was about 18 degrees in the Liberty Bowl when we started 2010.
The fans I talked to at last week's meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club are thankful for Frank Broyles, the former coach and athletic director. Broyles will be 86 on Dec. 26. It's hard to imagine where the Hogs would be today without Broyles. The passion was still there and didn't seem forced.
Broyles is old, but hearing him speak is always grand. I've heard his Razorback Club talks for close to 50 years. They always excite to the point you are ready to grab a helmet.
With that, I'll give you our Top 10 Things to Watch for Saturday's game, the last of our weekly editions at HawgsIllustrated.com:
1) The Warm-ups
This gets on the Top 10 List for the first time. Check out the LSU linemen in the pre-game warm-ups. I always do. There's no team in college football that looks any better in warm-ups. Particularly, I'm talking about the linemen on both sides of the ball. LSU's offensive line is impressive, both the first and second team. Here's how they measure across the front wall in the starting group: 6-6, 6-6, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-6. The backups: 6-6, 6-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-5. Then, find the LSU defensive line. Here's the starters: 6-5, 6-4, 6-2, 6-5. The backups: 6-4, 6-6, 6-1, 6-4. We aren't given the third defensive line in the depth chart, but I watched them go through their pre-game warm-ups last year in Baton Rouge. Impressive. Les Miles might sound goofy at times, but it's not hard to look good with those linemen. You will think you've seen an NFL team trot down the ramp at War Memorial Stadium.
2) Ryan Mallett
Jordan Jefferson, the LSU quarterback, is a fine athlete. But he doesn't always play like an SEC quarterback. He makes bad decisions in the passing game, but he does play behind one of the best lines in the SEC. Ryan Mallett is the difference between the two teams. He's the real deal, no matter what the committee from the Davey O'Brien Award might have said this week when it left Mallett off their list of finalists. Mallett has played superbly the last month. He's limited his mistakes and gets better each week at executing the total package in the Bobby Petrino offensive system. He was a little too hyped to start the LSU game last year. Hopefully, he's on an even keel early this time. If he is, the Hogs might be too much for those fine-looking linemen.
3) Joe Adams
The Tigers knocked Adams out of the game last year with some vicious helmet-to-helmet hits. Surely, Adams remembers. He had the Hogs set for a fantastic finish until the doctors took away his helmet in overtime. LSU likes to play its safeties deep. Adams will go over the middle to foil that strategy. Adams might be the best player on the field Saturday and that is saying a lot.
4) Patrick Peterson
If Adams is the best player, Peterson might be the next best. He's the SEC's best cover cornerback and that's one of the areas that makes the SEC special. No other conference in the country plays so much man-to-man as the SEC. It's because of the corners. Peterson will likely take one Arkansas wideout out of the game. He's likely to be stationed opposite Cobi Hamilton from start to finish. But that still leaves Adams open in the slot and Jarius Wright on the other side. Look for Wright and Adams to take turns going in motion to change the look of the LSU secondary and making it tough for Peterson to take away one side of the field. Watch to see if LSU tries to put him on Adams and how Petrino avoids that matchup.
LSU hits with reckless abandon. The Tigers can force turnovers with their aggressive tackling. Knile Davis must protect the ball better than he did last week. No team in the SEC hits any harder than the Tigers. If the Hogs win the turnover battle, they'll probably be in the mix for the Sugar Bowl, with some help from Auburn. The Hogs have to force Jordan Jefferson into passing situations. If they can, they are likely going to get some turnovers through the air.
6) First down
Both teams have been able to run the ball effectively on first down for the last month. That's been the improved nature of the LSU offense of late. Of course, ever since the Texas A&M game, the Hogs have run it better each week. They must make LSU's safeties play run on the early downs. Then the Hogs can roll out that sweet play-action passing game. Most focus on third down conversions, but this game is going to hinge on the early downs. The Hogs have been winning first down the last month.
7) Covering kicks
This is where Patrick Peterson impacts games the most. He tops Joe Adams as the best punt returner in the SEC, statistically. He also returns kickoffs well, averaging 27 yards. The Hogs have to play well in the coverage units. At 221, he plays more like a tailback than a cornerback. The Hogs lost it on a punt return for a touchdown. Maybe this is the game a punt return makes the difference -- in the Hogs' favor.
8) Van Stumon
Will the Hogs play a little more in a two-back set this week? That might pit Van Stumon, superb throughout his senior season, against LSU middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. If you see Stumon trot onto the field, get ready to see a collision. He's played well enough this year to make NFL scouts take notice. I'd love to see Stumon get a carry. He's made plays in the passing game, including a great grab on a low Mallett throw in the fourth quarter at Starkville.
9) Jerry Franklin
The Arkansas linebacker started the year trying to learn the middle linebacker position. He's a little undersized for the middle, but he's getting better every week. He played over 100 snaps last week against Mississippi State and recorded 20 tackles. That's Ronnie Caveness and Cliff Powell type numbers. LSU makes it hard with both power running and tricky misdirection plays. Watch to see if Franklin is worn out from last week's physical battle. He'll be tested inside again this week from a good fullback, LSU junior James Stampley, a 5-10, 230-pound bowling ball.
10) The Finish
Arkansas coaches stressed physical play starting in January conditioning workouts. The fourth quarter was always mentioned. The Hogs have won some games in the fourth quarter this season, but came up short twice (Alabama and Auburn). It's down to the finish now, game No. 12, with some neat prizes on the line. This is the Hogs chance to finish in the top 10 in the national rankings, including the BCS. We've been writing these Top 10 Lists all season. It would be nice to add that to our discussion, a national Top 10 finish. Arkansas has led in the fourth quarter in all 11 games so far this season. If they can get the lead in the fourth quarter against the Tigers, can they finish? I think they can.
State of the Hogs: Top 10 (LSU)
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