By this point of the season, strengths are well-established and there are very few secrets about what opponents are planning to try against each other.
That holds especially true when two college football heavyweights collide.
It should be strength-on-strength that decides the outcome when No. 1 meets No. 3, and that figures to be the case when Arkansas (10-1, 6-1 SEC) visits Tiger Stadium to square off with No. 1 LSU (11-0, 7-0).
Nowhere is that truer than when the Razorbacks’ receiving corps matches up with the Tigers’ secondary.
“This is the kind of matchup we’ve been looking forward to,” LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “We know this is as good an offense as we’ve faced and we think we’re the best defense they’ve faced. It’s just time to see who wins the battle.”
Depending on your viewpoint, how that matchup played out last season ought to serve as strong motivation.
For the Hogs, there should be plenty of confidence after they tormented the Tigers with 320 yards through the air in a 31-23 triumph at War Memorial Stadium, buoyed by three big plays for touchdowns – Cobi Hamilton catches for 85 and 80 yards and Joe Adams for a 39-yard grab early in the fourth quarter.
For the Tigers, those three long plays – accounting for 204 of the 320 yards – burned a memory that has been rekindled this week.
“You can’t make the slightest mistakes against them because they turn it into big plays,” said safety Brandon Taylor, who watched the game from home last season recovering from a broken foot.
“The way they distribute the ball to different players at different times makes them tough. They have so many weapons on offense.”
Enough to stretch an LSU secondary that has allowed only five touchdown passes all season, none in the last five games and only six pass plays longer than 20 yards since surrendering a bevy of big plays against West Virginia.
Arkansas has led the SEC in passing yards all season, with Tyler Wilson racking up 3,215 yards through the air with 21 touchdown throws.
As Taylor noted, the receiving corps is as good as any in the country, led by Jarius Wright (61 catches for 1,002 yards and 10 TDs), Adams (46-595, 3 TDs) and tight end Chris Gragg (38-457, 2 TDs).
That trio, along with Hamilton and veteran Greg Childs give Arkansas’ offense the ability to spread a defense thin with three, four and sometimes five receivers going out on routes.
LSU is talented enough to play most passing attacks man up, with cornerbacks Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu, Ron Brooks and Tharold Simon capable of clamping down, and the evolving set of safeties – Taylor, Eric Reid, Craig Loston, Derrick Bryant and Ronald Martin – all comfortable playing one-on-one.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge, knowing they’re going to pass it a lot,” said Brooks, who has emerged with several big plays in the last month.
Showing the swagger typical of the Tigers defensive backs, when asked about the Hogs regularly using four- and five-receiver sets, Brooks said “We’ve got four and five DBs. We’ll be all right.”
Who is in the game for LSU could dictate how the Tigers try to combat the Arkansas scheme. Coach Les Miles said there’s always a need to blend zone with man-to-man, and with Reid’s status unclear after he injured his quad last week, Loston could jump into the starting lineup.
But Loston has been hampered by a wrist injury the last several weeks. That could lead to Bryant and Martin spelling him at safety, which was the case last week.
If that transpires, Taylor said the Tigers are more likely to operate in a zone when Martin – the least experienced of the DBs – is on the field or if Arkansas starts relying heavily on crossing routes. Bryant, a senior, has played in enough nickel and dime packages to be comfortable in man coverage.
“We have other players,” Miles said about shifting personnel in the secondary. “We have good players. Whoever takes the field for us will be quality and be ready to play and we’re going to ask him to play the responsibility of the position.”
The biggest responsibility? Don’t let history repeat itself.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith torched the Tigers for 463 passing yards, peppering them for 38 completions on 65 attempts. LSU did not record a sack that night and was tormented by yards-after-catch, mostly by receivers who weren’t as good as the Razorbacks’.
If there’s a reason for optimism, LSU can refer to the same nightmare in Little Rock last season. Although Ryan Mallett hurt the Tigers at times, they also picked him off twice and sacked him four other times.
LSU’s primary set of DBs comes into the game with 13 interceptions and 32 pass breakups, while the Tigers rank second in the SEC with 27 sacks.
“West Virginia was more of a tempo offense and Arkansas is more a downfield game,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to win our one-on-one battles, get a great pass rush by the d-line and great blitzes by the linebackers and make sure we tackle and don’t let them get any momentum.”
Mathieu went a little straighter to the point.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” he said. “This is the time when we need to step up and make the big plays that a great secondary makes.”