PREVIEW: LSU vs. Arkansas

This was not the season Arkansas expected. With Gus Malzahn calling in the plays and Mitch Mustain slinging the ball all over the field in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks were supposed to be taking the next step towards becoming a bona fide SEC West powerhouse.

Instead, the wheels fell off in spectacular fashion.

Offensive coordinator Malzahn – brought in by head coach Houston Nutt (more on him in a minute) – resigned after just one year and went to take the same position at Tulsa. Malzahn, Mustain's head coach at Springdale (Ark.) High School, came to the school while Arkansas was recruiting Mustain, and was told he would be able to run his no-huddle offense with the Razorbacks.

Malzahn soon found himself being listened to less and less on the sideline though, so he packed his bags and signed on with the Golden Hurricane – who currently lead the FBS in total offense with 544 yards per game, 100 more than Arkansas' 2007 average.

After Malzahn was hired, Mustain signed with the Razorbacks and figured to become one of the more dominant quarterbacks in the SEC for at least the next three years. But after Malzahn lost his influence on the sideline, Mustain lost his starting job to Casey Dick – despite being 8-0 as a starter – and eventually quit the program and transferred to USC.

Meanwhile, Nutt quickly got himself into hot water when reports surfaced that he was having an alleged affair with a local news reporter, that a close personal friend had sent an insulting email to Mustain towards the end of the 2006 season (which began "Hello Mr. Interception King" and included the line "Helen Keller could read defenses in the SEC better than you"), and when a book about SHS hit the shelves that included the Mustain quote, "We (Springdale) are doing more stuff on offense every week on a high school team than they (Arkansas) are and they are in the SEC," and an implication that Arkansas would have a better chance of signing him if they fired Nutt.

It may be a year late for Mustain's liking, but firing Nutt may be what is about to happen in Fayetteville. Boosters have hired planes to fly over Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on a number of occasions during the 2007 season to fly banners calling for Nutt's firing, and a report surfaced this past weekend that the face of the 7-4, 3-4 Razorbacks was on his way out the door.

As far as Arkansas fans are concerned, Nutt has lost control of the team and with each passing game the Razorbacks slip further and further away from conference relevancy.

The 2007 started strong with a convincing win over Troy, but an 0-3 start in the SEC – with a three-point loss to Alabama, a 13-point loss to Kentucky, and a two-point loss to Auburn – quickly had fans screaming for Nutt's head. A comfortable win over Ole Miss (winless in the SEC) followed, but sandwiched between double-digit wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State was a thunderous 34-13 dismantling at the hands of the Tennessee Volunteers.

Arkansas hasn't been ranked since week two, and is currently just 1-2 against ranked opponents. The lone win came at home against the Gamecocks, who themselves promptly dropped out of the rankings at that point and haven't been heard from since.

Not helping matters is the fact that Arkansas runs a one dimensional offense, and that one dimension is currently limping on the sideline.

Without Malzahn and Mustain, the Razorbacks run, run, run, and then run some more. And why wouldn't they? In Darren McFadden the team boasts the best running back in college football (he was the 2006 Heisman Trophy runner-up), and with Felix Jones in the mix the team has the fourth-best rushing offense in the country with 288.73 yards per game.

The only problem is Jones and his 93.82 rushing yards per game sat out Arkansas' come-from-behind 45-31 win over Mississippi State due to a deep thigh bruise suffered against Tennessee, allowing the Bulldogs to key in on McFadden. As a result, the man who is known affectionately as Run-DMC was held to 88 yards on the ground – an impressive total, unless you consider he averages a shade over 138 per game.

It is unknown when Jones will return to duty in the backfield, but without him McFadden will be forced to shoulder a heavier burden than usual. Gone will be the occasional breaks during the game, and gone will be the "WildHog" formation, where he runs the ball (1,519 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2007), hands off to Jones (1,032 yards, 11 touchdowns), or passes the ball (three-of-five with three touchdowns).

While shutting McFadden down is no small task – consider he has been held below 100 yards just three times this year, and he cracked the 300-yard mark against South Carolina – nobody is entirely sure how well he will hold up if he has to be the focal point of the offense two weeks in a row.

That could mean more pressure on Dick, who has thrown for 1,404 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions this season. Dick has none of the mobility of Brent Schaeffer, the Ole Miss signal-caller who gave LSU's defense fits, but he is a higher-ranked quarterback nationally than the Tigers' own Matt Flynn in passing efficiency, while having decidedly less talent to throw to.

Peyton Hillis has 423 yards and three touchdowns, and is the only Arkansas wideout with more than 200 yards receiving (by contrast LSU has five with more than 200). Six Razorback receivers have caught more than one touchdown, led by Robert Johnson with four on his 11 receptions. After Hillis, with 39 catches, Dick's next most favored target is McFadden, with 21. After that it is Johnson and Jones with 11. Dick can't afford to play favorites with his crop of receivers, as evidenced by the fact that two of his top four targets are running backs, but 16 different players have receptions so Dick is capable of finding open men – whoever they happen to be.

Defensively the Razorbacks are solid against the run, but exception against the pass, ranking sixth nationally in pass defense. Overall they boast the nation's 39th-ranked defense, giving up 352 yards and 23 points per game.

Not surprisingly the team has 19 interceptions, led by sophomore cornerback Jerell Norton with five, including one returned for a touchdown. Three players – Norton, free safety Michael Grant, and cornerback Matterral Richardson – rank among the top 10 in the SEC in picks with five, three, and three respectively.

Arkansas' defenders have combined for 21 sacks, with five Razorbacks picking up three apiece. Those five include two defensive linemen (tackle Ernest Mitchell and end Adrian Davis), two linebackers (middle Weston Dacus and strongside Freddie Fairchild) and a defensive back (cornerback Jamar Love), indicating that a blitz can and will come from any point on the field.

Strong safety Matt Hewitt leads the team with 96 tackles, followed by free safety Michael Grant with 65.

At +7 in turnovers (eight recovered fumbles, 19 interceptions, 10 lost fumbles, 10 thrown interceptions) Arkansas protects the ball, and ranks behind only LSU in the SEC.

The Razorbacks are not as good as they have been in years past, and have had to deal with their fair share of off-field controversy in 2007, but will be itching to finish the season on a high note. For the bruised and battered Arkansas players, nothing would be sweeter than coming to Baton Rouge on Thanksgiving and knocking the national championship aspirations out of the conference's golden children.

And as long as McFadden is in the backfield, and especially if they can get Jones back on the field, that is a distinct possibility. LSU will be thankful indeed if it gets to the SEC Championship Game with just one loss on its resume.

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Head to Head:

Arkansas KR vs. LSU KR

Felix Jones vs. Trindon Holliday

Statistically they are first and third in the SEC in kickoff returns, but you'd be hard pressed to find two better kickoff return specialists in all of college football. Look no further than Arkansas's Felix Jones and LSU's Trindon Holliday. Jones leads the league and is third in the nation in kickoff returns averaging 32.7 yards per return. He also has brought back two kickoffs for touchdowns. Holliday, who is smaller and faster than the 6-0, 207-pound Jones, returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against Ole Miss last week. It was the first of the season for the 5-5, 150-pound Holliday, who also became the first LSU player to return to kickoffs for touchdowns in his career. Holliday's first retunn came against Arkansas last season in Little Rock.

LSU WR vs. Arkansas SS

Early Doucet vs. Matt Hewitt

Time and again Early Doucet proves he is the most valuable offensive player on this LSU team. He missed five games with a groin injury and the LSU offense missed him badly. But since his return, the Tigers' passing attack has improved dramatically as Doucet has not only made one big catch after another, he has positively influenced his fellow receivers. Matt Hewitt is one of the top safeties in the SEC as he ranks fifth in the league with 96 total tackles (49 solo stops).

Player to Watch:

Darren McFadden

RB, Junior

6-2, 215

Little Rock, Ark.

Pulaski Oak Grove HS

This is the man that needs no introduction. While there are plenty of analysts out there who continue to debate who should win the Heisman Trophy, there is no better player in the country than Arkansas's Darren McFadden. On the season, McFadden has ran 272 times for 1,519 yards and 12 touchdowns. He tied the SEC single game rushing record with 321 yards in a 48-36 win over South Carolina. McFadden topped the 200-yard rushing mark last year against LSU and has to be licking his chops after the Tigers surrendered over 200 yards to Ole Miss last Saturday.

LSU rushing offense vs. Arkansas rushing defense

Arkansas' talented backfield of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones will get most of the attention heading into this game, but the LSU Tigers' crowded cabinet of running backs have been quite impressive all season long. LSU trots out five running backs per game including Jacob Hester, Keiland Williams, Charles Scott, Richard Murphy and Trindon Holliday. The Tigers average 220 rushing yards per game, which ranks 13th nationally. The Razorbacks are surrendering a generous 151 yards per game, which is 50th in the country.

Advantage: LSU

LSU passing offense vs. Arkansas passing defense

Arkansas's secondary is highlighted by talented safety Matt Hewitt, but the Hawgs have been equally generous in the defensive backfield allowing 211 yards each contest. Matt Flynn's numbers remain steady, however, he has tossed 11 interceptions. Look for Flynn and Early Doucet to continue their impressive play and go out with a bang in their Tiger Stadium finale.

Advantage: LSU

Arkansas rushing offense vs. LSU rushing defense

Yes, yes the LSU defense is very good against the run. Despite allowing 201 rushing yards by the Ole Miss Rebels last week, the Tiger run stoppers are still allowing only 78.3 yards per game, which is fourth in the country. But remember back to the Arkansas game last season as both Darren McFadden and Felix Jones ripped through LSU's defense en route to a 300-plus yard rushing effort. They are still there and are more effective than ever.

Advantage: Arkansas

Arkansas passing offense vs. LSU passing defense

And as impressive as the Razorbacks running game may be, the passing attack is conversely awful. Casey Dick has completed 121 of 212 passes for 1,404 yards and his touchdown (17) to interception (9) ratio is not so bad. But the Hawgs rank 112th in Division I in passing offense averaging all of 163 yards per game. The Raorbacks sorely miss wideout Marcus Monk, who is out for the remainder of the season with an injury.

Advantage: LSU

LSU special teams vs. Arkansas special teams

LSU has been downright atrocious covering kicks this season and have allowed two punt returns for touchdowns in the last three games. Felix Jones and Trindon Holliday are two of the best kick returners in the nation. Both teams possess good kickers and capable punters. This is about as dead-even a category as you will find in this game.

Advantage: Even

Intangibles:

It is pretty much understood that time is running out on Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. Offseason troubles plagued Nutt and the Arkansas program. Attrition, scandal and internal unrest hung a cloud around the Razorback nation and it seems after four losses already this year, Nutt will likely be fired by the athletic director who recruited him as a player – Frank Broyles. Will the Hawgs step up and win one for the Nutt or will LSU use the Razorbacks as a runway to Atlanta and beyond.

Advantage: Arkansas

Prediction:

It was pretty scary seeing Ole Miss running backs running up and down the field against the LSU defense last weekend. Knowing what lay ahead with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones coming to Tiger Stadium and what they did to LSU last year, defensive coordinator Bo Pelini can't be looking forward to Saturday's game. However, the Tigers are the superior team and are an eyelash from reaching the BCS National Championship Game. LSU has overcome penalties, mistakes miscues, close game after close game, its former coach, hostile environments and even a triple overtime loss on the road to get to where it is right now. You don't think the Tigers are going to flop against a middle of the pack team with a lame duck coach do you? LSU will win, but it'll be close as usual.

LSU 34, Arkansas 22


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