LSU and Ole Miss -- and Ed Orgeron and Hugh Freeze -- going different ways
Tiger Stadium sits seven-tenths of a mile from the Mississippi River levee in Baton Rouge, La. But on Saturday night, LSU and Ole Miss — and their coaches, Ed Orgeron and Hugh Freeze, respectively — looked like ships passing in the night on the river as much as the teams playing in the venerable stadium.
Ole Miss was battling upstream against the current, the river dragging it back to the inevitable SEC pack after years of riding the talent of one great recruiting class to prominence. Under Hugh Freeze, there was 7-6, then the landing of the talented 2013 class. Then 8-5. Then 9-4 and 10-3. A one-game improvement every year.
In that run, Ole Miss seemed to pass LSU in the SEC pecking order, going 2-1 against the Tigers over the last three years.
But after the 38-21 loss to LSU on Saturday, the Rebels are now 3-4 in the 2016 season. True, they are awfully close to 6-1 with heartbreaking losses to Florida State, Alabama and Arkansas where, between the three games, they were a few plays away from being undefeated heading to Death Valley.
But the Rebels are 3-4 nonetheless, with the key members of that star-studded 2013 class mostly in the NFL. And with another star, quarterback Chad Kelly, six games away from ending his Rebels career, perhaps this marks the end of an era for Freeze and the Rebels.
Ole Miss faces an uncertain future with the bell cows on the field gone or leaving and with an NCAA ruling on recruiting violations — mostly centering around that 2013 class — pending. Are the Rebels finished with being a contender under Freeze?
Ole Miss doesn’t recruit classes like that every year. LSU does and, after a change of captains, it seems like the ship is again riding with the current of its continuous flow of elite talent for the program that puts more players in the NFL than any other.
The Tigers were four weeks removed from the firing of Les Miles on Saturday night, and it’s looking more and more like the Tigers — or at least some key supporters and a lot of die-hard fans — may have the path they want to take back to national prominence.
It starts, many supporters think, with the interim head coach, Orgeron, the Cajun who was born to coach in Louisiana. A native of the bayou, he obviously has the local pedigree. But he also has the résumé. He’s worked with Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll at Miami and USC. He’s recruited elite talent, and with all the elite talent in Louisiana, his mix of recruiting acumen and local credibility make him the guy who can put the proverbial fence around a state full of that talent.
It had to be curious for Freeze to witness Orgeron in apparent ascension on Saturday as he was along for the ride for Orgeron’s crash and burn a decade earlier.
That was back in 2005 when Orgeron hired Freeze, then the Memphis high school coach of Michael Oher of “The Blindside” fame, as an assistant. Freeze was on the Ole Miss staff to see Orgeron go 10-25 in three years, then lose his job.
While Orgeron returned to being an assistant after the 20o7 season, Freeze became a college head coach, first at NAIA Lambuth for two successful seasons, then two years at Arkansas State, where he led the Red Wolves to a 10-2 mark in his second year. After that, Ole Miss came calling, making him the head coach in 2012.
Orgeron, meanwhile, bounced around the NFL as an assistant, then returned to the college ranks with Lane Kiffin at Tennessee, then back to USC with Kiffin. In 2013, when Kiffin was fired, Orgeron went 6-2 as an interim coach but was passed over for the head coaching job.
So back to the job market Orgeron went, and in 2015, he landed at LSU as defensive line coach the year before Miles was fired and he’d have another chance to be an interim coach.
And here he was Saturday, looking like he could be the answer for LSU while Freeze’s future was looking in doubt.
How quickly do things change.
Of course, the chapter to this story is far from over and things can, and might very well, change again.
In 2016, Freeze landed Ole Miss’ best recruiting class since 2013, a class that includes two of the nation’s top four players in quarterback Shea Patterson — a Louisianian who Freeze stole away from Orgeron and LSU — and offensive tackle Greg Little.
So if Freeze survives this, the Rebels can rebuild. A foundation, he can argue, is there.
Meanwhile, Orgeron has a bye this week followed by the toughest remaining schedule in all of college football: Alabama, at Arkansas, Florida then at Texas A&M.
None of those are guaranteed wins, and all but Arkansas are among the nation’s top 17 teams in ESPN’s Football Power Index. While it’s not true that Orgeron needs to win out to get the permanent job at LSU — it’s clear now that he has enough support that he’s not going to be treated like the typical interim coach — he’ll still need to have some success.
And as good as LSU looked against Ole Miss, a 2-2 record against that schedule wouldn’t be bad but also might not be enough. The devil, of course, is in the details. During that 6-2 run at USC in 2013, he entered the season finale looking like the permanent job might be in his grasp, but the Trojans spit the bit against UCLA, losing 35-14 after coming into the game as 3.5-point favorites.
Orgeron, of course, did not get the job. How much did the poor finale influence the decision? It could not have helped for sure.
One suspects the story will be similar this year. Win out, and he obviously will get the job. But short of winning out, it comes down to how the team competes.
So far, everybody around LSU seems to love how the Orgeron Tigers play and how it reflects on the coach. But he had a lot of support at USC, too. If Alabama steamrolls LSU on Nov. 5 much the same way the Tide destroyed Tennessee and Texas A&M recently, the attitude towards Orgeron could sour in a hurry.
So it’s not too hard to see this story change back. It’s not hard to foresee a 2018 where Freeze is riding the wave of his 2016 recruits back to prominence while Orgeron is back toiling as an assistant, waiting for the next chance to open up to him.
But on Saturday, at least, Orgeron’s career track was in ascension, and the Tigers again looked elite. Ole Miss looked like yesterday’s news, and Freeze looked frozen out of any conversation of hot coaches.
They’ve crossed paths many times before. On Saturday night, they sailed past each other, clearly headed in opposite directions.