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The Game to Watch
Arkansas at LSU (1:30/CBS) –
The No. 3 Razorbacks head to Baton Rouge to take on the top-ranked Tigers in a nationally televised game that will determine who plays in the SEC and BCS title games. One of the nation’s most prolific offenses will face a suffocating defense, and for only the second time ever the top three teams in the major polls all hail from the same conference — in this case, the same division. Arkansas, who has emerged late in the season as a BCS darkhorse, has won three of the last four in the series, punching their ticket to the Sugar Bowl last year with a win in the “Battle for the Boot.” Five of the past six games in the series were decided by five points or less, with the only larger margin coming in Arkansas’ wild 31-23 win in Little Rock a year ago.
Can Arkansas protect Tyler Wilson?
With the possible exception of Aaron Murray, Tyler Wilson is the best passer in the SEC, and it isn’t close. Wilson isn’t the best quarterback in college football, but he may be the toughest. The junior has taken a beating all season long, but continues to make good decisions and step into passes even under duress. He ranks eleventh in the nation in passing yardage registering 293 yards per contest, and he’s been efficient throwing 21 touchdowns against only five interceptions. He’s been sacked twice a game and hurried far more often, though, and Wilson has only faced one defense comparable to the one that will be looking to tee off on him on Saturday. Alabama held Arkansas to its lowest offensive output of the season, and a case could be made that LSU’s front four is every bit as good if not better.
Who blinks first? The back end of LSU’s defense is amazing even without Wilson running for his life, but if he’s hurried it will make his day even longer, and LSU has the best quality depth up front of anyone in college football. They come at you in waves, and the top 22 are absolutely relentless. LSU records 2.5 sacks per game, has picked off 15 passes this year, and has the second-rated pass efficiency defense in America (behind only Alabama.)
LSU will look to neutralize Arkansas’ passing game and flip the field by forcing mistakes and turnovers. Arkansas’ defense simply doesn’t match up well in this game, so the Hogs essentially must play mistake-free football on offense to have a chance. With LSU ranked tops in the nation in turnover margin, that’s a tall order.
Another area to watch is on special teams – particularly the punting game when LSU kicks the ball. Brad Wing has been simply phenomenal all year, and as a result LSU has allowed only 6 return yards all season on 13 chances. The Hogs have taken three punt returns to the house, and they’ll likely need to break at least one kick to change momentum on Saturday if they’re to stay in the game.
It’s certainly been an emotional week for Arkansas. The joy of moving to No. 3 in the BCS rankings on Sunday night was tempered with the tragic loss of tight end Garrett Uekman earlier that morning. With a short week and the emotional roller-coaster this team has been on, it would be understandable if they’re not completely sharp on Friday afternoon in a hostile venue.
Expect Bobby Petrino’s group to play hard and do all it can to try to make its way to the BCS title game, but expect LSU’s ball-hawking defense and superior depth to take over late. Arkansas will fight. Wilson will earn even more respect taking hits all day and making gritty plays. Ultimately, though, the game will turn on a late turnover or special teams play in LSU’s favor, and the Tigers will pull away as they head to Atlanta.
OKTC Prediction: LSU 34, Arkansas 24
Other quick reads:
Ole Miss at Mississippi State
Will Houston Nutt confuse the hash-tag in the new #hailstate endzones as his own, personal tic-tac-toe board? In a nod to the 14 people in the state of Mississippi who use Twitter, Mississippi State is unveiling hash-tagged endzone markings on Saturday. Expect State to also unveil a total beatdown in this Egg Bowl. The Rebels waved the white flag weeks ago, and Dan Mullen needs to quiet his growing number of critics in a bad way. If he can make this get ugly, he will. Nutt may gain inspiration from the hashtags, though, and hold up a sign with his own pound symbol…followed by Jimmy Sexton’s direct line.
OKTC Prediction: Mississippi State 41, Ole Miss 14
Alabama at Auburn
Can Auburn slow down Alabama’s running game for a third straight year?
The Tigers very nearly derailed Mark Ingram’s Heisman Trophy campaign in 2009, and despite giving up loads of yardage through the air in the first half last year, did a more-than-adequate job of stifling the Tide on the ground a year ago in Tuscaloosa. The Iron Bowl will make or break Alabama’s season, as the Tide looks to lock up a trip to the national title game with a win over its bitter rival on the Plains. To some extent, this game will also define Auburn’s 2011 campaign. It was expected to be a rebuilding year, but a win this week would make Auburn fans quickly forget the debacle in Athens two weeks ago.
For the past two seasons, this has been a game where Ted Roof has put down his Family Circus cartoons and Sudoku puzzles long enough to develop a sound gameplan and really stymie a good offense. Expect that again this year, at least through three quarters. Auburn’s coaches are savvy enough to know that putting the game in A.J. McCarron’s hands will not only give them the best chance to win, but it could also have a similar effect on Trent Richardson’s Heisman candidacy as the 2009 effort almost did to Ingram’s.
This Auburn team isn’t good enough or deep enough in the front seven to replicate the dominating performances it had against Alabama’s rushing attack in the two years’ prior, but it will be good enough to keep the game closer than Alabama fans would like. Expect some serious squirming from the visitors until late in the game when Richardson and the Tide will put this one in the win column. Only two Iron Bowls since 1978 have covered the current, enormous spread on this game, so while you can’t “throw out the record books” (because the better team typically wins,) you can expect a dogfight. Auburn is a different team at home. It’s a better team at home. But it’s not a good enough team at home to win this one.
OKTC Prediction: Alabama 27, Auburn 14
Other OKTC Predictions:
Tennessee 28, Kentucky 17
Clemson 27, South Carolina 24
Florida State 21, Florida 17
Georgia 35, Georgia Tech 24
Wake Forest 24, Vanderbilt 23
Season Prediction Record: 56-10
Season ATS: 34-29-3