BATON ROUGE, La. — As huge and heavy as the trophy known as “The Boot” may be, Arkansas and Louisiana State University both have much bigger things to play for when their annual Thanksgiving week rivalry is renewed on Friday.
This is arguably the biggest game to be played in venerable Tiger Stadium in more than half a century.
“This is a game that we really look forward to,” LSU coach Les Miles said, indicating in his own way that the contest between No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Arkansas could be even more important than the so-called “Game of the Century” that the Tigers won in Alabama earlier this month.
“It is a game of significance unlike other similar games we have played this year,” Miles said. “Our guys are poised to play a game of significance and (for) an opportunity to achieve all the things they want to achieve.”
Death Valley hasn’t hosted a matchup of top-three teams since the famed Halloween night game between No. 1 LSU and third-ranked Mississippi back in 1959, when Billy Cannon’s 89-yard punt return lifted the Tigers to a 7-3 victory.
This time, LSU (11-0, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) is looking to go 12-0 for the first time, and both teams are in the running for a bid to the BCS national championship game in New Orleans on Jan. 9.
Arkansas’ only loss came at No. 2 Alabama in September, and the Hogs (10-1, 6-1) have steadily climbed the rankings ever since while winning seven straight games.
“We’ve certainly improved a lot as a football team since the Alabama game,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “We’re playing well right now, so we’ve got to carry it over.”
If the Tigers win, they’ll wrap up the SEC West and look forward to facing Georgia in the conference championship on Dec. 3 in Atlanta, where a 13th victory would virtually assure LSU a chance to play for at its third national title in nine seasons.
“This is probably the biggest game for us because this determines whether we go to the SEC championship,” LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. “The media hyped up the Alabama game a lot, but this is still a big game for us.”
If the Razorbacks, who are nearly two-touchdown underdogs, pull off the upset, things get a little more complicated — and a lot more appealing to those who take pleasure in the prospect of BCS chaos.
An Arkansas victory would leave as many as a half-dozen one-loss teams arguing that they belong in the national title discussion.
At the same time, because Arkansas lost to Alabama, which in turn lost to LSU, all three could end up tied atop the SEC West with 7-1 league records. That is, if the heavily favored Crimson Tide beats Auburn in Saturday’s Iron Bowl.
In SEC divisional races, the next tiebreaker is highest BCS ranking. Theoretically, the computers still might keep LSU on top because its victories over both Oregon and Alabama might trump what would be Arkansas’ most impressive win of the season.
Taylor said Miles and the LSU coaching staff have urged players to avoid reading about the game and all the possibilities that could unfold.
They’d rather the Tigers focus more on things like slowing down the most prolific passing attack in the SEC, led by Tyler Wilson, who’s thrown for 292.3 yards per game with the help of top receivers Jarius Wright and Joe Adams.
“He’s definitely the best quarterback, (and Arkansas has) the best passing attack that we’ve faced,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “Their receivers are outstanding and they make big plays, and the quarterback, he delivers the ball on time and right on the money.
“It’s just one of those things, as a defense, you have to try to scheme around. You have to make them make mistakes.”
LSU will try to keep Arkansas’ offense off the field by controlling time of possession with a deep and powerful running game that has averaged 209.5 yards. Arkansas ranks eighth in the SEC in defending the run, giving up 164.2 yards per game.
If LSU has to throw, Miles is not saying whether Jordan Jefferson, who has started the past two games, or Jarrett Lee, who started the first nine, will get the bulk of the work. He hasn’t let the senior quarterbacks speak to reporters for several weeks, either.
Arkansas has shielded all of its players from the media this week, asking that they be given space to grieve for tight end Garrett Uekman, who died Sunday from what a coroner determined was a previously undetected heart condition.
Still, it was apparent from comments players made on social media sites that they believed one of the best ways to honor Uekman is to play with passion in Baton Rouge.
On his Twitter page earlier this week, freshman tackle Brey Cook wrote: “A team with something to play for can be dangerous, but a team with someone to play for is unstoppable.”
AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed to this report.