Updated: Oct 8, 2021
Twenty months ago, LSU Head Coach Ed Orgeron was the belle of the ball. The native Louisianan, someone who could have been the subject of the Creedence Clearwater hit “Born on the Bayou” had just led LSU to one of the greatest seasons in college football history. The Tigers blitzed through a grueling SEC schedule, plus a non-conference game against Texas a perfect 15-0, finishing the year National Champions after a 42-25 drubbing of defending champion Clemson. We’ve heard it before, but I will repeat some points to demonstrate just how good LSU was, for emphasis.
An NCAA record seven wins over teams ranked in the top ten
48.2 PPG, tops in the nation
Won SEC Championship Game and two College Football Playoff Games by an average margin of 26.3 PPG
5 All-American and 15 All-SEC selections
15 NFL Draft Selections in 2020 (tied for most ever) and 10 in the first three rounds (tied for most ever
That small list is just a fraction of the accolades Coach Orgeron’s team racked up.
It wasn’t just that they were good. They were fun. Even in LSU’s recent success, two national titles in 2003 and 2007, and a BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama in a controversial rematch of a matchup the Tigers won earlier in the year in 2011, it had been nasty defenses, and grind-it-out, run first offenses that brought the Tigers success. When Orgeron took over, LSU modernized the offense to some degree from where Miles had left it, but it was far from cutting-edge. Even Nick Saban, who once accused the up-tempo style offenses that started to beat him occasionally in the early 2010s to be bad for player safety, had relented and allowed the Alabama offensive strategy to significantly modernize.
So, when the Tigers got shut out 29-0 and failed to crack 200 yards, by Alabama in what was being billed at the time as the biggest SEC game of the year in early November during the 2018 season, Orgeron knew they would have to finally adapt more spread and air raid concepts into their offense.
Orgeron brought in then-29-year-old savant Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints as passing game coordinator, with the plan for him to split offensive coordinator duties with longtime LSU assistant Steve Ensminger. Brady unlocked Joe Burrow’s potential, and the Tigers had weapons galore in Jamarr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Terrace Marshall and Thaddeus Moss. Burrow won the Heisman, Jamarr Chase quickly became the most feared receiver in college football, and magic happened. Orgeron, never known for his X’s and O’s acumen, had appeared to have settled into his role as program CEO. The formula was simple. He had hired great assistant coaches, he connected personally with the boosters as someone with a similar background, recruits loved the authentic, down-to-earth head ball coach, and the wins followed in that 2019 championship season.
That’s not all that followed for Orgeron. He was a national darling. A nation of sports fans eager to see someone other than Clemson and Alabama on top loved the good ole boy from Southern Louisiana. Impressions of Coach O' deep Cajun accent became ubiquitous. Pardon My Take, Barstool Sports’ giant sports podcast, lionized him with Orgeron making frequent guest appearances. Videos of him pumping up the LSU faithful, with “Born on the Bayou” blasting in the background, during the Tiger Walk went viral on Twitter (you can see it below). His signature “Go Tigahs” became a shorthand greeting, half-serious, across the country. Orgeron was so popular in LSU during that 2019 season that John Bel Edwards, the Democratic governor in ruby-red Louisiana, strongly pursued Orgeron’s, which Orgeron, though implicitly gave to him. Many political scientists attribute Edwards’ reelection win in 2019 in part to the good feelings around Tiger football that fall, with Coach Orgeron signaling through appearances throughout the calendar year that Edwards was his guy. When the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, Edwards asked Orgeron to film a PSA. Orgeron, was, after all, the most popular Louisianan in the state at the time. LSU is no underdog in the college football landscape, but Orgeron’s background made him one, and America loved it.
It’s important to remember Orgeron was not the first choice for LSU leadership when they fired Les Miles four games into the 2016 season. University leadership was head over heels for Tom Herman, who spurned them for Texas. After all, Herman had won a national title as an offensive coordinator at Ohio State, creating an offense that scored points in bunches with backup quarterback Cardale Jones down the stretch. Coach O who went 6-2 as the interim coach after Miles’ dismissal, though charismatic, known as a great position coach, and thought of as one of America’s best recruiters, had failed at a previous SEC West coaching stop at Ole Miss, winning three SEC games in three seasons in a tenure most known for landing him a cameo alongside Sandra Bullock in the Blindside. USC, a place where he won big with Pete Carroll before taking that Ole Miss job, made him the interim coach after firing Lane Kiffin. They spurned him for another one of Carroll’s assistants, Steve Sarkisian and Miles snatched him to coach the defensive line, where Orgeron was thought of as one of the best. After Herman chose Austin over Baton Rouge, LSU administration responded to a furor of pro-Orgeron support from his current and former players, as well as prominent LSU boosters eager to see the job go to someone they could call one of their own, and hired him.
Why all the background information?
All of it helps us understand how we got to where we are now. LSU has gone 8-7 since that magical 2019 season, and Orgeron’s seat is hotter than a Louisiana summer. Gone is Joe Brady, hired away by the Carolina Panthers to be offensive coordinator. Dave Aranda, who had turned himself into one of the nation’s premier defensive coordinators at Wisconsin and LSU, was hired away by Baylor to be their head coach. Those generational weapons all over the field that produced a record number of NFL draft picks are also gone, and so is the magic and swagger of that team.
It’s year five for Orgeron. This is his ship now. It’s his players, his coaches, his culture. Yes, LSU is still recruiting at a high level. It doesn’t take a magician to bring talent to Baton Rouge, with facilities so nice there’s an LSU-shaped lazy river on campus. The Tigers are fifth in 247 Sports’ team talent rankings, and they are light-years away from being the nation’s fifth-best team. The goodwill Orgeron built up in 2019, with LSU fans and national media alike, is all but gone. Thelast twenty months, which feel much longer to anyone with a pulse, have only exacerbated the issues at LSU. Fans have lost patience more quickly. There were noticeable empty seats during Saturday night’s home loss to Auburn, the first loss to Auburn at home since 1999. The concerns about Orgeron that caused him to not get the USC job and made LSU target Herman over them, have returned in full force. It’s evident that this is a coach who needs everything to go just right, with fantastic assistants bringing their own schemes, to win at a level that LSU fans and stakeholders deem acceptable.
In a way, his own success in 2019 may be contributing to his downfall. After all, LSU put up with plenty of disappointing years under Miles, who lost three or more SEC games in five of his last eight years. Miles’ great years, even his national championship season in 2007, never reached the highs of 2019. The 2007 team lost two games in the regular season and benefitted from arguably the most chaotic college football season in history to backdoor its way into the BCS Championship Game before bulldozing an overmatched, overrated, Ohio State. The 2011 team was the closest to the 2019 team in dominance, but they weren’t as exciting as the 2019 team, and the loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game, where LSU famously did not cross midfield until the fourth quarter of a 21-0 drubbing, significantly decreased the legacy of that team.
LSU fans liked what they saw in 2019. How could you not? An advanced and accurate passer with homegrown weapons who grew up playing 7v7, air raid football, is much more fun to watch than plodding offenses. The state of Louisiana puts out a ton of skill position talent, and even when LSU’s offenses weren’t exactly electrifying, they were full of bigtime talents like Odell Beckham Jr. and Leonard Fournette. Those physical freaks that LSU had on their rosters in years past but never took advantage of were used correctly in 2019. Coupled with a fast, physical defense that LSU has had since Nick Saban was patrolling the sidelines in purple and gold, and you had the style of football that LSU fans wanted to see in the future.
That’s a fry cry from the 2020 season and the early going this year. LSU started their 2020 season and promptly lost to Mississippi State, making it pretty clear it would not be another fairytale season, before finishing 5-5. Now, 2020 was weird for everybody. But programs like Penn State and Michigan, who both operate in the same elite college football ecosystem that LSU does, have quickly erased the bad juju of the 2020 season and are playing as well as either program has played under James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh, respectively.
LSU changed coordinators on both sides of the ball. Ensminger, who was never the same after the horrific plane crash on the day of LSU’s College Football Playoff Semifinal against Oklahoma that killed his daughter-in-law en route to the game, was moved into an analyst role. Orgeron brought in Jake Peetz, who served as Joe Brady’s quarterback coach in Carolina last season to be the new offensive coordinator, hoping to capture some of that magic Brady brought to the bayou two years ago. Bo Pelini, who returned to Baton Rouge, the place he made his name as a defensive coordinator under Miles before taking the Nebraska head coach position after the 2007 National Championship season, was fired after the LSU defense was gashed to a tune of 34.9 points per game, worst in school history by a significant margin. Orgeron hired Daronte Jones, who hadn’t been a defensive coordinator since 2003, when he was coaching high school football, a far cry from modern SEC offenses.
For Jones, it didn’t even take an SEC offense to expose the Tiger defense. UCLA, not exactly a power program under Chip Kelly, pushed LSU around to the tune of 470 yards, including 210 on the ground. The Tiger defense played fine enough against cupcakes McNeese St. and Central Michigan. But, the last two weeks, the unit has given up 900+ combined yards the last two week to Mississippi State and Auburn, two offenses that are not exactly world beaters. The defense is improved from last year. It could only go up, after all. Still, it’s not vintage LSU defense.
The offense, unlike in 2020, is the main concern. Yes, the offense took a step back in 2020, but how could it not, compared to the 2019 team. An injury to Myles Brennan early last season, with whom the Tigers were scoring with, also hurt last year’s offense. This year, the issues are much more troubling. LSU, who, even when they had sputtering offenses under Miles, found ways to run the ball against most conference foes. Despite a group of highly-touted running backs and offensive linemen, the Tigers are 128th in rushing yards per game against FBS opponents, at 57.2. Against Auburn, a run defense that gave up 267 yards of rushing against Georgia State the week prior, LSU managed 11 yards on 26 carries. Even if you take out Quarterback Max Johnson (sacks count against rushing yards in NCAA) and two team rushes for -23 yards, that leaves the Tiger rushing attack with 13 carries for 40 yards in a game in which the game script lent itself to running the ball.
The lack of run game is putting a lot of pressure on sophomore quarterback Max Johnson. Johnson, the son of Super Bowl Champion quarterback Brad Johnson, has been good, though not great, in the early going here, sporting a 16/4 touchdown to interception ratio to go along with a 62% completion percentage. But, even with the golden arm of Joe Burrow and a receiving corps that would make most NFL teams blush, LSU still ran the ball well, only helping Burrow and co. mow down opponent defenses. Classmate Kayshon Boutte, a former five star Louisianan-raised recruit, has emerged as one of the nation’s top receivers with nine touchdowns through five games. The lack of any semblance of a running game, however, allowed Auburn to play a significant amount of sub packages on defense, making life tough for Johnson and company.
The weakness and lack of toughness in the trenches on both sides is not only something that can’t win games in a league as physical as the SEC, but it’s a far cry from what Ed Orgeron is supposed to be about as a coach. This is a guy who exudes grit, from the way he talks, the way he coaches and the obstacles, real or imagined, he claims to have overcome in his life. He coached some great defensive lines in his career, chock full of highly-touted recruits who improved under his tutelage. That edge in toughness, something even underachieiving LSu teams of the past twenty years is gone. In its place is a finesse style of football on both sides. The game has moved to a more finesse sport, don’t get me wrong, but to beat Alabama, Georgia and others consistently, you better be good in the trenches. The Tigers appear to be as bad as any team in the SEC West up front, despite having more talent than Alabama. Even Mike Leach, as loyal a disciple to the air raid as they come, has increased the physicality of Mississippi State in the trenches, as he learned quickly last year you better be solid up front in this league. The Tigers, however, are going backwards, quickly.
Off-the-field, Orgeron’s issues may be worse. LSU, and as an extension of that the football program, have come under intense fire for their handling of sexual assaults, something that today’s political climate simply will not (and should not) tolerate. How much of those issues are directly Orgeron’s fault is a debate for someone else, but it will certainly be on the mind of LSU’s stakeholders as they evaluate his position with the university, especially if LSU continues to struggle.
Put all of this against the backdrop that is the SEC West. Lane Kiffin and Sam Pittman seem to have it going at Ole Miss and Arkansas, two schools that LSU is used to beating. Auburn moved on from a coach in Gus Malzahn that didn’t exactly run Auburn into the ground in the pursuit of something more. nd it’s clear why many Tiger faithful are ready to move on. The mood on LSU fan forums has decreased quickly, many of them convinced they got stuck with the worst-case version of Orgeron many worried about when the job initially came open in 2016.
Yet, the options for replacing for Orgeron are relatively bleak for a program like LSU. They will have to compete with at least USC in a potential coaching carousel. There is more institutional support at LSU, but not everyone is attracted to the rat race that is recruiting and coaching in the SEC. LSU, with the unique Louisiana culture that is much different than schools in their own conference, is another thing they will have to sell to a new coach.
Joe Brady would, of course, be a home run, but he’s known to not love the recruiting and CEO aspects of college football and he moved to the NFL as soon as he could following the 2019 season. He appears to be a destined for an NFL head coaching job this offseason.
Jimbo Fisher is an interesting proposition. He coached at LSU from 2000-2006, before leaving to be Bobby Bowden’s chosen successor at Florida State. But, his Texas A&M Aggies are having a similarly disappointing season as LSU is. Fisher is signed through 2031 after an offseason contract extension.
Bob Stoops is a name that’s been thrown around, and coaches who have left the profession due to health problems have been known to come back.
It’s not clear if Gus Malzahn is willing to rejoin the craziness and expectations that come with high-level SEC football so soon after being run out of town by Auburn.
Mario Cristobal makes a lot of sense and has brought back attitude and toughness to Oregon after Mark Heflrich neutered the Ducks. But, he has a good thing going at Oregon, can recruit nationally like LSU, and gets to play in the PAC-12 North, a far cry from the SEC West.
Lane Kiffin is intriguing for a lot of reasons. Many think of him as a finesse coach, but he’s got Ole Miss running the ball at a high level. However, Ole Miss may be a better fit for Kiffin at this point in his career, his eyes surely set on the Alabama job. 9-3 will get it done at Ole Miss. At LSU? Maybe not.
That brings us to Urban Meyer, who would have made a lot of sense, albeit with a lot of baggage just a few days ago. That, of course, is now not going to happen. Beyond those names, LSU would be taking a chance on someone who has never won big in the SEC, a leap that is as large as any in the coaching profession.
Maybe LSU rallies, beats Alabama, wins out, and plays Georgia, presumably, for the SEC title in Atlanta. Nothing that anyone has seen the past five weeks would indicate that, though. Ed Orgeron, just so recently the belle of the ball, has seen the clock strike midnight. This former Cinderella story appears to be turning back into a pumpkin.
Follow Garrett Carr on Twitter @RealGarrett Carr