FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas safety Alan Turner has never really experienced the joy of beating LSU during his collegiate career.
Sure, the senior was redshirting in 2010 when Arkansas sealed a trip to the Sugar Bowl with a dramatic 31-23 victory against the Tigers in Little Rock. He saw his teammates celebrate by hoisting the Golden Boot. But Turner wasn’t in uniform.
Arkansas is 0-3 when Turner has played in the game. He wants it to change.
"It would mean a lot to us. Especially the seniors," Turner said. "It’s just something about a trophy game when you can go across the field and take the trophy from someone. We’ve been embracing it during practice. We want to get it back."
Arkansas may be wallowing in a 17-game SEC losing streak, but the Razorbacks are trying not to be overwhelmed by the big picture tonight. Their only motivation the past two weeks has been preparing for one task: Take back the Golden Boot.
Turner and his teammates will get the opportunity at 7 p.m., when Arkansas (4-5, 0-5 in SEC) plays 20th-ranked LSU (7-3, 3-3 in SEC) in Razorback Stadium. Arkansas enters the game as a surprise favorite and coach Bret Bielema is hoping his team will take advantage of the opportunity, wrapping its arms around the hefty prize.
It would be an appropriate reward for the struggles Arkansas has endured under Bielema the past two seasons. There’s no doubt the Razorbacks are inching closer to an SEC win. But Bielema said it’s now time to do it during a trophy game.
"Sometimes you’re the last person to know how really good you are, you know?" Bielema said. "It’s one of those things kind of in life … You don’t understand it until it’s right there in front of you. And I’ve told our guys repeatedly is if all these other people think so many great things about you, but you haven’t reaped the rewards of it, why wait any longer? Why not take advantage of this opportunity?"
To do so, Arkansas will have to withstand the elements. Temperatures are expected to drop below 30 degrees during tonight’s game, becoming the coldest weather the Razorbacks have played in since the frigid night in the 2010 Liberty Bowl. There’s a chance for precipitation as well, although the percentages have diminished.
Arkansas has prepared for the elements all week, shaking off the chance to work inside the cozy Walker Indoor Pavilion. Instead, the Razorbacks have practiced in the stadium and Bielema believes the outdoor work will give Arkansas an edge.
"One of the reasons we go with this type of offense is you can play in all weather," Bielema said in reference to Arkansas’ physical ground game. "You can play in dry with 100 plus degrees. Or it can play wet with minus freezing temperature. You’ll adjust as the game goes on according to the weather if that’s a factor.
"The good news is our guys have played in it in the past and we got a chance to rep in it this week. … We should be able to take advantage of any opportunity."
Is it enough to withstand LSU? That remains to be seen.
The Tigers — who weren’t able to work in the same type of cold this week — are trying to bounce back from their own heartbreak after blowing a late lead in the 20-13 overtime loss against Alabama last Saturday. It eliminated LSU from the SEC West championship picture and has tested the Tigers’ will with little left to play for.
Historically, the Tigers have done well after losses under coach Les Miles (25-1). But Miles admitted earlier this week his team had a hard time swallowing the latest.
"Certainly there’s residue from a game like that," Miles said. "You’re proud of how you played. The reward, the finish you didn’t get. But as long as you played hard in the game that you just played that you recognize that’s how it’s supposed to be and you take that good feeling about what your contribution was to your team to the next game. I think we’re going to be ready. That’s the key, being ready for Arkansas."
There’s little doubt the success of both ground games could determine the winner.
Both Arkansas and LSU plan to impose their will on each other with physical rushing attacks that rank among the SEC’s best. The Razorbacks have struggled in SEC play this season, but believe Korliss Marshall’s return from a three-game suspension will help them get back on track. LSU, meanwhile, will be without senior Kenny Hilliard, but talented freshman Leonard Fournette is more than capable of carrying the load.
Miles said earlier this week both teams could have 50 rushing attempts apiece in the cold weather tonight. Bielema said Arkansas had formations with eight or nine linemen ready if needed. He didn’t appear to be joking.
"We’re ready to roll with them," Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Thursday night. "I’m ready whenever he’s ready. We’ve been working on them all week, so whatever he wants me to call, we’re ready to go."
Arkansas doesn’t care what it takes to snap an SEC losing streak that now spans 763 days. But Arkansas linebacker Martrell Spaight said it shouldn’t have lasted this long, looking back at the 31-27 loss in the season finale at LSU last season.
The Razorbacks had the lead late in the fourth quarter, but a blown coverage resulted in Anthony Jennings’ game-winning, 49-yard touchdown pass to receiver Travin Dural. Arkansas will see both players on the field once again tonight.
"We lost the game for ourselves last year," Arkansas linebacker Martrell Spaight said. "We have been carrying that burden throughout the whole year knowing we gave the game up and we just have been going out there with the mentality that we are going to get that Boot back. That’s been our mentality and our main focus."
It would signal an important step in Arkansas’ hopes of reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2011 as well. The Razorbacks must win two of their final three SEC games against LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri to become bowl eligible.
But the only thing they’re worried about tonight is getting the Golden Boot.
"It’s meaningful to bring something home," Arkansas running back Alex Collins said. "I look forward to it. it’s important to me, it’s important to our team. That’s why we’re making the preparations that we do to bring it on home."