The LSU 'What If?' Game: What happens if three pivotal plays are changed
Boy, we could be in the middle of controversy right now.
LSU could be heading to the Sugar Bowl, but complaining that it, and not Ohio State, should be in the Playoff. And Les Miles would be going on TV to argue that college football needs to find a playoff process that is “best” and “has the chest” to pick a proper champion.
Or maybe Washington fans would be complaining that neither Ohio State nor LSU deserve to be in the Playoff.
What a mess that would be!
Seem like a far-fetched “what if?” for a 7-4 team?
All it would take is a change of three LSU offensive plays: The discipline to not have a false start in the final drive against Wisconsin, resulting in a game-winning field goal rather than the ensuing interception; getting the last play off against Auburn for the winning touchdown; and Derrius Guice going the right way and scoring against Florida.
Change those three plays in LSU’s 7-4 season and, all of a sudden, LSU is 10-1 with wins over Wisconsin, Auburn and Florida.
But is it really a three-play swing? That’s a great question, considering each changed scenario alters the rest of the season. If Will Clapp doesn’t have a false start against Wisconsin, maybe Brandon Harris leads a game-winning drive and finds his footing and Danny Etling doesn’t become the quarterback. If Etling gets the last snap off in time against Auburn, maybe Les Miles saves his job and, with no offensive coordinator job awaiting him at LSU, Lane Kiffin accepts a large buyout to become Houston’s next coach.
So many dominoes could have fallen differently with each scenario and … well, you get into a butterfly effect discussion.
So let’s look at the season’s three pivotal plays and talk about what might have been.
And note, in each scenario, we’re assuming all events leading up to these three moments are the same. In other words, the Auburn scenario is not one that assumes an LSU win over Wisconsin, for example.
Will Clapp doesn’t false start
Game: LSU’s 16-14 loss to Wisconsin Sept. 3 in Green Bay.
Situation: After Raphael Gaglianone’s 47-yard field goal with 3:47 left gave Wisconsin a 16-14 lead, Harris completed passes of 19 yards to DeSean Smith, 4 yards to Travin Dural and 7 to Malachi Dupre before Leonard Fournette bolted for 15 yards to the Wisconsin 30, within range for a game-winning field goal attempt by Colby Delahoussaye, with just over a minute left. But on the next play, Clapp was penalized for a false start, pushing the Tigers back to the 35. Then Harris threw an interception right into the arms of D’Cota Dixen with 57 seconds left at the Badgers’ 25 and Wisconsin was able to run out the clock.
The aftermath: The loss put both Miles and Harris on short leashes. The next week, after a slow start against Jacksonville State, Harris was relieved by Etling. Harris never took another significant snap. Two games later, Miles was fired after another close loss at Auburn.
“What if” short-term effect? If Clapp doesn’t flinch, LSU likely keeps the ball on the ground (taking away the possibility of a Harris interception), to set up a Delahoussaye field goal attempt. How far? Given the explosiveness of Fournette, there is a good chance it would have been much closer than 47 yards (the distance it would have been after Fournette moved the ball to the 30). The safe estimate is something around a 40-yard field goal, very much in Delahoussaye’s range.
“What if” long-term effect: Harris was pulled after two series against Jacksonville State, but if he engineered a late, game-winning drive against Wisconsin, Miles probably would have stuck with him much later into the JSU game. And perhaps if he was coming off a positive outcome against Wisconsin, he would have played a better, more confident game against JSU. Then who knows when, or if, we would have seen Etling.
As for Miles, if he won the opener he probably would have gotten a mulligan for a loss to Auburn and would not have lost again until the Alabama game. Would the mood to make a move on Miles have been as strong if a similar outcome against Alabama (a 10-0 loss) dropped LSU to 6-2?
LSU gets the last play off against Auburn
Game: Auburn’s 18-13 win over LSU Sept. 24.
Situation: After Auburn’s Daniel Carlson kicked a 34-yard field goal for an 18-13 AU lead with 2:56 left, Etling led another LSU march. Etling had rushing first downs of 12 and 18 yards and hit first down passes of 16 and 4 yards. But in the process, LSU burned a timeout after an incomplete pass and, following a sack of Etling by Carl Lawson at the Auburn 20 with 24 seconds left, LSU used its last timeout. That set off a confusing sequence that ended with Etling throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Chark with no time on the clock (photo below). However, replay showed that the ball was snapped to Etling just after the clock expired, so the play officially never happened and Auburn held on to win.
The aftermath: Following a second September loss for a team with national championship aspirations, Miles was fired the next day, replaced by Ed Orgeron on the interim (with the interim label eventually getting removed).
“What if” short-term effect: We’re back in the same situation we were in with the Wisconsin loss. If LSU pulls out the Auburn game to go to 3-1, Miles would still have had the job and, given the teams LSU would face leading up to Alabama, the Tigers would probably have navigated the schedule without another blemish until the Tide rolled into town. Then, we’re left with the same question: How motivated would LSU have been to dismiss Miles after losing to Alabama to go to 6-2? If it was the same 10-0 game as it was under Orgeron, would that have cost him the job? It would have been interesting to see.
“What if” long-term effect: Even if he survived Alabama, if the Florida outcome was the same and LSU finished 8-3, it would be hard to see Miles keeping the job. Now, if the Tigers finished 8-3 and went to the Sugar Bowl … maybe the Hat would still be hanging in Baton Rouge.
Derrius Guice goes the right way
Game: LSU’s 16-10 loss to Florida, Nov. 19.
Situation: It was another last-ditch drive gone bad. After Eddy Pineiro’s 34-yard field goal gave the Gators a six-point edge with 3:24 left, LSU drove to the Florida 7 with 50 seconds left. On first down, Guice gained two yards, then on second down, he plowed for four yards to the 1. But on third down, fullback J.D. Moore was stuffed for no gain. LSU let the clock go to one second before calling timeout. In the winner-take-all play, Guice went the wrong way and, in a confused-looking play, was stuffed on a too-early attempt to dive into the end zone. He fumbled and tight end Foster Moreau recovered, but short of the goal line. Florida celebrated (below).
The aftermath: The loss dropped the Tigers to 6-4 and out of Sugar Bowl consideration, and many believed Orgeron had lost his best chance at getting the permanent head coaching job. But after LSU was rebuffed by both Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher and Houston’s Tom Herman (both indicated they wanted more money than LSU was willing to pay them), LSU circled back to Orgeron.
“What-if” short-term effect: If Guice goes the right way, it looked like the surge was there to get him into the end zone. So LSU would have won 17-16 and gone to Texas A&M playing to be the SEC’s Sugar Bowl team. It would have been interesting to see if Arden Key would have done whatever it was that got him suspended for the Texas A&M game five days later if LSU was playing for a New Year’s Six berth.
“What-if” long-term effect: Not much, outside of LSU preparing for Oklahoma in New Orleans instead of Louisville in Orlando. Orgeron would be taking a little more clout out on the recruiting trail, but would still be after Lane Kiffin to be offensive coordinator. And Orgeron might be looking at a slightly more lucrative contract, though probably not by much.