Peel away the obvious physical duels when No. 1-ranked LSU meets No. 3 Arkansas — the Tigers’ NFL-caliber defensive backs against the Razorbacks’ NFL-caliber receivers, the leverage LSU’s lines will try to get on Arkansas’ lines, Brad Wing’s talented foot against the nimble tread of punt returner Joe Adams — and you find some heady hidden motivations in this mega-showdown.
How those motivations will play out will shape this game and determine the legacy of two highly ranked foes.
Before kickoff of Friday’s game, the pregame simmer will be turned down, and some 92,000 fans, players, coaches and observers in Tiger Stadium will observe a moment of silence to remember Razorbacks tight end Garrett Uekman. The 19-year-old, who was living the dream of a tragically short life by playing for Arkansas, died Sunday of an unseen heart condition.
Exactly what impact his death will have on the Razorbacks is an unknown. Aside from the usual brief expressions of shock and sadness early in the week by coach Bobby Petrino, the Arkansas players and coaches have been on media lockdown, choosing to keep their grief private, their thoughts personal.
Just how a team may handle the prospect of playing in a football version of the missing man formation is hard to forecast. No doubt there will be powerful, sweeping emotions for Arkansas before the game and after, emotions that may drive the Razorbacks to be better than they otherwise could be.
But during the game there could also be distractions — not seeing a fallen comrade on the play he usually played, not seeing him on the sideline where he always stood. That is the X-factor that defies definition until the game is played out.
The Razorbacks are trying to ply uncharted BCS waters — the winner of this game could well have staked out a berth in the BCS championship game — but how to reconcile that ambition with a heavy heart?
For the Tigers there is no cause, no loss or emotional hurdle that would allow them to squeeze into the role of sentimental favorite.
There is just the faith in their own talents, built layer upon layer by what is in some ways an unprecedented string of victories that has brought them to 11-0, and the burning ambition to go to a place where no LSU team has truly gone before.
“The goal is perfection,” said Barkevious Mingo, LSU’s eloquent and slippery fast defensive end. “This team wants to be perfect. The goal is to win championships, so we have to continue to win games.”
It is a unique opportunity. LSU’s two BCS national champions got their trophies but couldn’t stay unblemished — the 2003 team lost to Florida, the 2007 team to Kentucky then to Arkansas in triple overtime.
You have to go back to the 1958 team to find the kind of perfection these 2011 Tigers are seeking. Still the benchmark for LSU’s latter-day achievements, the 1958 team had to beat all of one ranked opponent en route to a 10-0 regular season (No. 6 Ole Miss). It also beat a ranked Clemson team in the Sugar Bowl, but back then the national championship trophies were awarded before the bowls were played.
If it’s trophies this LSU team wants, if it’s an indelible place in the record book as the first 14-0 team in school history, these Tigers will have to go out and earn it. They would have to beat No. 3 Arkansas, a Georgia team in Georgia that could well be ranked in the top-10, and then a No. 2 team in the BCS title game that is likely to be previously vanquished Alabama. That would be four wins over top three-ranked teams including earlier wins over then No. 3 Oregon and the No. 2 Bama.
It won’t be easy. It will be immeasurably difficult. If LSU can complete the task it will have beaten nine ranked opponents along the way. As ESPN.com’s Chris Low said, if the Tigers can pull it off it may well be the most impressive season in Southeastern Conference history.
The LSU players probably aren’t caught up in all of that. All they know is they’ve worked extra hard since the offseason, ostensibly to deal with Oregon’s unique offense, and had to defend their goose egg in the loss column against a horde of respectable, very good and great teams.
Keeping perfection in play is a potent motivator. One that may help the Tigers carry the day in this latest, greatest showdown.