HOOVER, Ala. — The one-sentence take on the upcoming LSU football season goes something like this:
The Tigers can contend for first place in the SEC West if they can show modest improvement in their passing game.
It sounds simple. It sounds like an already broken record (or perhaps a hacked Spotify account for you hipsters out there). But the Tigers don’t have to reinvent themselves to rebound from a mostly disappointing 8-5 season in 2014.
They also don’t have to look far for inspiration. Within the footprint of the SEC West there resides a team that could provide LSU a blueprint for the kind of offense it needs to enjoy a more potent, prolific, successful 2015.
In the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Tigers have a kindred spirit. A team that likes to run first, be physical, wear you down, then think about passing the ball. Perhaps.
The college football world, including the once wishbone-dominated Southeastern Conference, has gone so gaga for hurry-up offenses even Alabama coach Nick Saban has incorporated them into his game plan — though he once decried the no-huddle as inherently dangerous, like communism or an Auburn-educated door-to-door salesman. The-no huddle has spread across the SEC to the point that run-first offenses are in a twisted way becoming something of an outlier, almost a relic of the single-bar facemask days.
“It’s tough to get ready for our style of offense,” Arkansas tailback Jonathan Williams said. “It’s hard to defend.”
Emory Bellard and Bear Bryant are sharing a cocktail in heaven right now, shaking their heads over what their conference has become.
Being harder to defend is the goal for LSU this season, even if that means following a bit in Arkansas’ wake.
The numbers from 2014 for these two are strikingly similar, though tilted in the Hogs favor.
Passing offense: Arkansas ranked 100th in the country, averaging 188.0 yards per game; Bbut it was still better than LSU, which ranked 114th at 162.9.
Rushing: LSU ranked 23rd nationally with 224.5 yards per game. Arkansas was right behind in 24th with 218.0 yards per game.
Total offense: Arkansas 406.0 (60th nationally), LSU 387.5 (70th)
Scoring: Arkansas 31.9 points per game (42nd), LSU 27.6 points per game (73rd).
The Razorbacks knew what it was like last season to have teams sandbag the box, trying their best to gum up the works of a formidable rushing machine while perfectly content to allow Arkansas to pass.
But slowly, fitfully, the Razorbacks got better through the air. As a result, it opened things up for Arkansas’ tremendous running back duo of Williams and Alex Collins. They poured through the gaps like a Mexican drug lord slipping out of prison, rushing for 1,190 and 1,100 yards, respectively, making the Razorbacks the only team in the nation with a pair of returning 1,000-yard rushers.
“You have to have success passing the ball for the running game,” Arkansas senior quarterback Brandon Allen said. “That opened up a lot of things for us.”
Allen was subjected to some of the same criticism last season that rained down on LSU starter Anthony Jennings, with a little of it running off and dampening the spirits of backup Brandon Harris, he who couldn’t capitalize on a grand opportunity handed him by Jennings after a shockingly bad first half against New Mexico State.
Allen was no Heisman contender, ranking eighth in the SEC with 2,285 yards passing. But with a dynamic duo like Williams and Collins having his back, Allen didn’t have to be a caped crusader. Just Adequate Allen. B-plus Brandon. That’s a role he could fill, and with a moderate upgrade and some vitamins, you figure that could be something Jennings or Harris could manage as well.
It’s a all a little wacky how LSU, which lost 17-0 at Arkansas in frigid Fayetteville in November, is seen as a program starting to wobble, while the Razorbacks are the SEC’s latest rage — them and Tennessee.
But perception frequently passes for reality, and Arkansas is seen as an up-and-comer on the SEC scene. It doesn’t take a lot of strong-arming to convince people the Razorbacks could be playing Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game come December.
Arkansas is promising more balance under new offensive coordinator Dan Enos, but there’s little doubt the Razorbacks’ motto will still be “Run First” in 2015. Passing well enough to do it successfully will only enhance the whole operation, something Arkansas is expected to do this season.
LSU would do well to do something similar.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.