BATON ROUGE, La.— Les Miles did not even want to contemplate whether his top-ranked Tigers might get a bid to the BCS title game even if they lost next weekend's SEC championship showdown with Georgia.
"I just want you to know something," Miles said. "There would be no way that this team could come to Atlanta and not play their best."
At this point, though, unbeaten LSU (12-0, 8-0 SEC) would have a good argument for a national title shot even if it stumbled against the No. 13 Bulldogs in Atlanta next Saturday.
The Tigers wrapped up the SEC West on Friday with a convincing 41-17 victory over No. 3 Arkansas, marking the third time this season LSU had beaten a team ranked third or higher. The first such victory came by 13 points over then-No. 3 Oregon in a neutral site to open the season.
Later, came a three-point overtime win at No. 2 Alabama.
None of the one-loss teams vying for a spot in the BCS title game can boast of overcoming as many highly ranked opponents, so it appears the Tigers will emerge from the SEC title game either undefeated, or with the best resume among a handful of one-loss teams atop the BCS standings.
"We earned this," said running back Kenny Hilliard, who rushed for a career-high 102 yards on 18 carries against Arkansas, including a 6-yard touchdown. "We knew what we wanted to do.
We wanted to play for an SEC Championship and guess what we get to do that now."
Arkansas, which rode a seven-game winning streak into Tiger Stadium, threatened to ruin LSU's bid for a perfect season by taking a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.
LSU responded with a methodical 14-play, 77-yard LSU scoring drive capped by Hilliard's bruising TD run to cut the Hogs' lead in half. Soon after, Tryann Mathieu was racing past Arkansas' punt coverage team for a 92-yard touchdown return that tied the game.
"I could hear my teammates in my ear saying, 'Man, we need you to go make a play,'" Mathieu said. "I was able to help the momentum really go in our favor."
The rivalry game with Arkansas (10-2, 6-2) for the enormous "Boot" trophy was billed as the biggest in Tiger Stadium since 1959, the last time two teams ranked in the top three clashed in Death Valley. Billy Cannon lifted No. 1 LSU to a 7-3 win over No. 3 Mississippi in that game with an 89-yard punt return for a score, so it seemed fitting that the Tigers would get a similar score against the Razorbacks.
"That was a huge turning point in the game," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "We were trying to get the ball punted to the sideline, but he miss-hit it a bit and punted it to the middle. ... (Mathieu) made a great cut and made us miss at the point of attack. He made a great play."
On Arkansas' next offensive series, Mathieu forced a fumble by running back Dennis Johnson that stalled a promising Razorbacks drive and set up LSU's go-ahead touchdown, a 9-yard pass from Jordan Jefferson to Russell Shepard 59 seconds before halftime.
The Tigers pulled away from there on the strength of a punishing ground game that racked up 286 yards. Spencer Ware scored on a tackle-breaking 7-yard run in the third quarter, and Jefferson raced 48 yards for a score on a quarterback draw.
Arkansas took a surprising early lead on Tyler Wilson's 13-yard TD pass to Jarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith's 47-yard fumble return. The largest deficit LSU had faced before Friday was 13-9 against Oregon in the season opener.
The Tigers stormed back and outscored the Razorbacks 41-3 from there.
"This football team down 14 points did not flinch," Miles said. "There was never a question in anyone's minds on that sideline we were going to respond."
LSU's defense sacked Wilson five times (twice by Barkevious Mingo) and picked him off once on Morris Claiborne's team-leading fifth interception of the season. Mathieu added a second forced fumble in the second half, which he recovered himself.
Wilson completed 14 of 22 passes for 207 yards, with 60 yards on a short pass that Cobi Hamilton turned into a long gain. The play put Arkansas in position to tie the game at 21 in the third quarter, but LSU's defense forced a field goal that made it 21-17, and the Razorbacks never got closer.
"We played a great team and they came out on top," said Wright, who came in leading the SEC with 100.2 yards receiving per game, but was held to only one catch by LSU. "They're the No. 1 team in the nation. Of course, we're upset about the loss because we definitely could have finished better."
Jefferson was 18 of 29 for 208 yards and one touchdown. Rueben Randle had nine catches for 134 yards, while Michael Ford rushed 11 times for 96 yards.
The Hogs were nearly two-touchdown underdogs, but had pledged to play passionately in memory of late teammate Garrett Uekman, who died last Sunday.
Coaches wore black ribbons on white shirts, and tight end Austin Tate changed his jersey number from 87 to Uekman's 88.
Hardly intimidated by a raucous Death Valley crowd, Arkansas built a 14-0 lead that was by far LSU's largest deficit of the season.
It looked at that point that LSU was going to face its toughest test yet.
Instead the Tigers made it look easy, scoring three straight TDs before the half ended and pulling away in the second half.