It seems every time one of these games comes around, visions of Thanksgiving Day, 1971 are conjured.
In this particular rendition, Oklahoma played the irresistible force, Nebraska the immovable object.
No. 1 Nebraska entered the heavily hyped fray with a defense – filled with with seven first-team All-Big Eight selections and four players who would earn consensus All-America honors – that to this day many still consider the best in college football history.
The No. 2 Sooners countered on their home field with the nation’s most productive offense, a Wishbone attack averaging 45 points and 563 total yards per game (481 on the ground).
When the dust cleared in Norman, Okla., that superlative defense was left standing. Nebraska won 35-31.
Fourteen years later, the programs switched roles entering another late November showdown in Oklahoma.
This time around, No. 2 Nebraska boasted the nation’s highest scoring offense, with a ground attack racking up 395 yards a game. No. 5 Oklahoma countered with a highly potent running game all its own. But the Sooners’ defense, led by nose guard Tony Casillas, linebacker Brian Bosworth and defensive end Kevin Murphy, was even more impressive.
Oklahoma won 27-7 after holding Nebraska to 161 yards.
It is yet to be seen if No. 1 LSU’s defense will enter the pantheon of the game’s great defenses, as Nebraska ’71 and Oklahoma ’85 have. But in leading LSU through an undefeated first 11 games, a gauntlet including Oregon, West Virginia and Alabama, it so far certainly seems likely. As the Tigers look down the scope at their Nov. 25 game with No. 3 Arkansas, a team to which they have lost three of the last four seasons, they take solace in a defense superior to any of its predecessors.
The legacy of Arkansas’ recently vaunted offense, which has routed its last three SEC opponents, is harder to divine. It suffered mid-season hiccups in lackluster wins against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, on the heels of failing a test against Alabama, the only team with a defense comparable to LSU’s.
Razorback apologists point out injuries kept key defensive players Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright from that 38-14 defeat in Tuscaloosa, Ala., while running back Dennis Johnson hadn’t yet given an Arkansas offense built on passing the extra dimension it’s since developed. Besides, it was the first road start for junior quarterback Tyler Wilson, who now looks like a Heisman candidate heading into next season.
Despite all this cross-the-board improvement, history doesn’t favor the chances of an offense as good as Arkansas’ beating a defense as good as LSU’s on Friday in Baton Rouge, La. The side with the better defense typically emerges victorious, even if that elite “D” is unaccompanied by an elite offense.
Following are recent outcomes between teams similar to Arkansas in terms of per-game points (39) and total yards (463) averages and teams with defenses giving up less than 11 points a game (LSU allows 10 points a game, along with 248 yards). The stats below pertain to the entire season.
1997: Ohio State (scoring 37.92 points a game, allowing 10.92 points) vs. Arizona State (40.67, 18.00) in the Rose Bowl. OSU limited ASU quarterback Jake Plummer to 201 yards on 19 of 35 passes) in a 20-17 win.
1998: Michigan (scoring 26.83 points a game, allowing 9.5 points) vs. Washington State (40.25, 24.67) in the Rose Bowl. WSU’s offense centered on quarterback Ryan Leaf, the most productive passer in Pac 10 history to that point and his “Fab Five” receiving corps of Kevin McKenzie, Shawn McWashington, Shawn Tims, Chris Jackson and Nian Taylor. Michigan won 21-16 despite being outgained 379 to 398 yards.
2000: Texas Christian University (allowed 9.6 points, 245 yards) vs. Northwestern (averaged 38.55 points and 475.64 yards). TCU won 41-14 in September.
2003: LSU (allowed 11 points a game) vs. Oklahoma (42.93 points, 439.43 yards). LSU won 21-14 in January. The Sooners also had a Top-5 defense.
2005: Alabama (allowed 10.7 points, 255.08 yards) vs. Texas Tech (39.42 points, 495.83 yards). Alabama won 13-10.
2008: University of Southern California (allowed 9 points, 221.77 yards) vs. Penn State (38.92 points, 448.92 yards.) USC won 38-24 in January.
Despite this pattern, Arkansas fans shouldn’t take offense. Here are a couple games to reference this week when defending their program against those not-so-quiet LSU fans:
2000: Florida State (allowed 10.3 points, 277 yards) vs. Miami (Fla.) (averaged 42.64 points, 460.82 yards). But the Seminoles lost 27-24 in October to Miami, which also had a top-ranked defense.
2009: Nebraska (allowed 10.43 points, 272 yards) vs. Texas Tech (37 points, 470.77 yards). Nebraska lost 31-10. This October game is exceptional in that it’s the only recent case in which a defense the caliber of LSU’s this season lost to a prolific offense not accompanied by one of the nation’s best defenses. Still, Tech was limited to 259 yards, including 47 in the second half.
While historical patterns may not appear to support Arkansas’ chances, there are a couple unique X-factors to consider:
1) This game may be yet another ho-hum “Game of the Century” affair for LSU, a program used to vying for national titles, but it will be the largest sporting event in Arkansas since the Razorbacks’ December, 1969 loss to Texas, the No. 1 vs. No. 2 affair which launched the phrase “Game of the Century” in the first place.
2) Razorback Garrett Uekman died Sunday from an undiagnosed heart condition, a tragedy heaping motivation onto Arkansas players and coaches who already had plenty. If Arkansas gains in inspiration what it has lost in preparation because of Uekman’s death, that could prove the difference.
Photos courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette