Well, here we go again.
Three weeks after the game of the century, the biggest game ever – whatever name you prefer that was attached to LSU’s game at Alabama on Nov. 5 – the No. 1-ranked Tigers are back in the national spotlight in a game ripe with massive SEC and national implications.
This time No. 3 Arkansas (10-1, 6-1 SEC) provides the other half of plot. Like the Crimson Tide, the Razorbacks have lofty aspirations and LSU (11-0, 7-0) stands squarely in the way.
The circumstances are a bit different with the Tigers at home and one step away from locking up the first perfect regular season since 1958.
There’s added drama in the form of tragedy as Arkansas comes to Baton Rouge with heavy hearts after the death of redshirt freshman tight end Garrett Uekman last Sunday.
On a historical note, this is the matchup of the highest ranked teams in Baton Rouge since 1959 when the top-ranked Tigers entertained No. 3 Ole Miss.
All the circumstances aside, this shapes up as a tremendous battle of contrasts and the latest in a line of what has become one of the most competitive games either team plays every season.
This kind of challenge is nothing new to the Tigers as Friday’s game marks the eighth time LSU has faced a ranked foe this season. Six times this season LSU has traveled out of Baton Rouge and six times the Tigers have come home with a win – four times over ranked foes.
The Tigers finally get a marquee game at home and that’s fueled their intensity for the final piece of the 2011 regular-season puzzle.
While there has been no shortage of national chatter about the possibility – some talking heads have gone as far as the probability – of LSU losing because of the magnitude of this game, the Tigers don’t seem too distracted by their latest dance with destiny.
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“We don't live in a fantasy world,” senior cornerback Ron Brooks said. “We live in the real world and we don't focus on what-ifs and possibilities and what could be.”
What it could be is the Tigers’ trickiest test of the season against the best offense they’ve faced. Ten of LSU’s games have resulted in double-digit victories. In seven SEC games, the Tigers have given up only four touchdowns and 50 points.
Arkansas has scored 44 points or more in each of its last three SEC triumphs and 31 or more in all but two games.
“This is a big challenge for us,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “They have a great offense and we have a great defense. It’s time to see who the best team is.”
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That defense, while it figures to be tested, is what should give the Tigers whatever edge they can come up with.
LSU ranks second to Alabama in every major category, anchored by a stout defensive line and opportunistic secondary. Those two units will both have to come up huge against a Razorbacks’ passing game that ranks with the best in the country, churning out 316.9 yards a game.
To dominate Arkansas the way it has so many other foes this season, the Tigers’ defense will have to play its best game of the season. That’s a challenge the LSU players are ready to embrace.
“I feel like dominance is more of confidence,” defensive tackle Mike Brockers said. “Confident in what you're doing, confident in playing fast and confident in you knowing that you're better than the guy on the other side of the ball.”
That’s a notion the Tigers’ offense will also have to lean on this week.
While it’s not necessary for LSU to try and be as explosive as the Hogs can be, the Tigers will have to put points up.
To do so, LSU will have to run the ball like it has all season when it has averaged 209.5 yards a game behind a versatile and deep cache of running backs, and take some occasional shots downfield with Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee.
Arkansas’ defense has made strides since early in the season, but the Razorbacks aren’t likely to completely shut the Tigers down. The Hogs allow 360.3 total yards a game, 196.1 passing yards and 164.2 on the ground – all rank eighth in the SEC.
As long as LSU can avoid a shootout, the combination of a stingy defense and playing at home are a strong recipe for success.
A recipe well-suited to get the Tigers where they want to be: In Atlanta next week for the SEC Championship Game and down the road at the Superdome for the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 9.
“We all have just one goal: Get to the national championship,” Brockers said. “And we don't think anything can stop us from doing that but ourselves.”
Added guard Will Blackwell, one of 25 seniors playing their final home game at Tiger Stadium, “We've got some tough games left ahead of us, but we've played a lot of tough games this season and I feel like we're prepared to take on that challenge, mentally. We want to be able to hang up a banner before we leave.”