At LSU, optimism and uncertainty are colliding. And Ed Orgeron's future may hang in the balance
August in college football is supposed to be a moment for boundless optimism before the reality of a long season kicks in. For LSU, it’s been a month of uncertainty and attrition.
Go down the depth chart, preferably with a red pen handy. Offensive lineman Ed Ingram, a full-time starter as a true freshman, was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested on two counts of aggravated sexual assault. Wide receiver Drake Davis, a former blue-chip recruit, was suspended indefinitely amid accusations of domestic battery. Linebacker Tyler Taylor, a part-time starter in 2017, was suspended indefinitely after he was arrested for burglary. Two of the three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster at the end of spring practice transferred out; the third, presumed starter Myles Brennan, was supplanted by a graduate transfer whose presence itself was a signal of how little coaches trusted Brennan as the heir apparent.
These are not ideal vibes for a team that showed up to camp already facing its lowest expectations in recent memory. Last season was the first in 17 years that LSU failed to crack the top 10 in the AP poll at any point; on the heels of that, the Tigers are starting out with their worst preseason rank (25th) since 2000, which was Nick Saban’s first year. (The AP ballots are in line with the broader preseason consensus.)
To some extent even that feels like a kind of token vote, a nod to the fact that LSU is … well, LSU, one the handful of perennial recruiting powers that always ranks among the deepest and most monolithically talented outfits in the country, and which for nearly two decades now has been able to sleepwalk its way to 8 wins a year by default. Tigers fans might bristle at the notion they can no longer take that kind of baseline success for granted, but on paper, at least, those assumptions look thinner this year than they have in a long time.
Mostly that has to do with experience, or lack thereof. The Tigers are green: As a team, they can count on less returning production from 2017 and fewer career starts across the entire roster than any other outfit in the SEC. Based on preseason guru Phil Steele’s metric for measuring experience, they ranked 129th out of 130 FBS teams even before the recent wave of attrition; the initial depth chart for Sunday’s opener against Miami lists a half-dozen true freshmen on the two-deep, equaling the number of seniors.
The defense, while young, still projects as a typically formidable LSU D under multimillionaire coordinator Dave Aranda. (Linebacker Devin White and cornerback Greedy Williams, in particular, have a chance to be the best in college football at their respective positions.) On the other side, though, the lingering questions that have defined the offense for years are magnified: Beyond the uncertainty surrounding the new quarterback Joe Burrow — whose basic profile at this point makes him more or less indistinguishable from the old quarterback — there are no proven outlets at running back or receiver, where transfers and freshen are expected to play a leading role. At least three-fifths of the offensive line will be new. So will the play-caller, for the fourth time in as many years.
On a game-by-game basis, ESPN’s Football Power Index projects LSU as the underdog in seven of them, most of them by a surprisingly large margin, and settles on a 6-6 finish overall. The forecast in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings calls for 7-5. According to the betting site Bovada, gamblers have collectively put more money on the Tigers falling short of 8 wins this season, a mark they’ve hit every year since the turn of the century, than on any other “Under” win total.
Needless to say, LSU didn’t feed Les Miles to the gators in the middle of a season just watch his successor go 6-6. In Baton Rouge, those are the kinds of numbers that get coaches fired regardless of the circumstances. And for Ed Orgeron, the prospect of facing a brutal schedule in an obvious rebuilding year is a perfect storm that arrives at the worst possible time. From the start, LSU’s gamble on a coach with Orgeron’s lowly track record at Ole Miss was easy to dismiss as more sentimental than sound, a rash reaction to the fact that the Tigers’ first choice for the full-time gig had just spurned them for Texas; Coach O made no secret it was his dream job.
A lot of people willing to give him the benefit of the doubt joined the skeptics full-time last fall after embarrassing flops against Mississippi State and Troy in the first month of the season, while the original skeptics graduated to looking up how much it would take to buy out Orgeron’s contract.
To the extent the Tigers recovered over the second half of the season, it was never to the point that they posed a serious threat to knock off Alabama, or to build a groundswell of momentum heading into Orgeron’s second full season. The “Fire Orgeron” cravings have mostly subsided. Ideally, though, Year 2 under a new coach is supposed to be the breakthrough, the year that rising talent coalesces under the new regime and gives a glimpse of the program’s long-term potential. The overriding narrative at LSU is just the opposite: If the prognosticators are right, 2018 is much less likely to be about some kind of impending surge on Orgeron’s watch than whether he survives to see Year 3.
That question won’t be resolved on opening day, and barring a shocking twist in one direction or the other — things can always go better than expected if the new pieces on offense click, or worse if they don’t — it will probably loom over the regular season to the bitter end. (Emphasis on bitter.) Still, as a tone-setter for the rest of the year, Sunday’s opener against Miami might be as close to a must-win game as LSU will face.
The Hurricanes are an ostensibly elite opponent, a name-brand outfit ranked No. 8 to open the season in both major polls; they’re also a beatable one, still unsure exactly where they stand among top-tier programs after watching a breakthrough 2017 campaign collapse in a three-game losing streak at the end. Quarterback is an issue for the Canes, and it’s a given that the crowd in Arlington will turn the “neutral” site into a de facto home venue for LSU.
If the new-look Tigers are better than their expectations, a primetime, Sunday night showcase with the entire country watching is about as golden an opportunity as they ask for to prove it. Besides turning down the heat on Orgeron, a win on that stage is the kind that can change the outlook of a season and the mood of a fan base overnight — if not to the degree that they wake up on Monday chanting “WE WANT BAMA,” then at least to the point that they can imagine still being relevant in the SEC West race when the Nov. 3 trip to Bama actually rolls around. At minimum, it would be reassurance that LSU remains recognizable as LSU.
If not, Monday morning will be given over to the grim calculations of what needs to happen over the coming months just to keep Orgeron afloat.
A Sept. 15 trip to Auburn is on the horizon, followed a few weeks later by the start of the four-game gauntlet vs. Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama. A version of LSU that’s good enough to beat Miami is good enough to realistically expect to take a couple of those games on the way to another 8- or 9-win finish. A version that takes it on the chin against the Canes is suddenly staring down the barrel of a long, frustrating year. And the latter is not a reality their coach can afford.