LSU's bounce-back season never bounced
LSU’s bounce-back season had very little bounce to it.
The Tigers struggled to a 5-5 record in 2020 and self-imposed a bowl ban to try and mitigate potential future sanctions from an ongoing NCAA investigation.
The offseason was dedicated to assuring that 2021 would be much better than 2020.
Head coach Ed Orgeron replaced his defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, passing game coordinator and other assistants.
A handful of important players chose to stick around after a whole bunch of others had left for the NFL for potentially greener pastures in college football.
Another highly-regarded recruiting class was on its way to Baton Rouge.
The 2020 season was going to prove to be an aberration, the Tigers promised. A winning record and bowl eligibility were going to be assured with games to spare.
LSU was going to be relevant in the SEC West, maybe even return to contender status 2 years after winning the national championship.
It did seem plausible that the Tigers could have a bounce-back season in 2021.
Pollsters bought it and LSU landed at No. 16 in the AP preseason poll.
Then the 2021 season began.
The Tigers looked marginally but not significantly improved in their season opener, still giving up too many yards and points, not running the ball well enough and being inconsistent enough on offense to lose at UCLA 38-27.
They wound up 6-6 and are headed to a bowl game after a dramatic 27-24 victory over Texas A&M in Orgeron’s final game. That put a little bounce in their step, but it certainly doesn’t constitute a bounce-back season.
A 5-5 record is a .500 winning percentage and a 6-6 record is a .500 winning percentage.
So 2021 was essentially a repeat of 2020.
That’s no bounce-back.
It was more of the same.
More mediocrity, more irrelevance in the SEC.
But there won’t be any more of Orgeron after the back-to-back break-even seasons led to his dismissal, although the upset of the Aggies means the team under the direction of offensive line coach and now interim head coach Brad Davis lives to play another day.
Half of their victories came against the likes of McNeese State, Central Michigan and Louisiana-Monroe. Those aren’t the type of programs against which LSU gauges itself.
It gauges itself against SEC opponents and the occasional Power-5 nonconference opponent such as UCLA.
Against those teams, the Tigers went 3-6. Their SEC wins came against Mississippi State (28-25) in the conference opener against a team that didn’t hit its stride until mid-season, against Florida, which was in the early stages of a meltdown that cost Dan Mullen his job, and a solid Texas A&M team.
The 2021 season concluded with back-to-back wins that produced a .500 record – just like the 2020 season.
It’s a safe bet that 2022 will also be billed as a bounce-back season for the Tigers.
The start of a new era under a new coach inevitably will bring significant optimism.
But the 2021 season demonstrates that the bounce-back will continue to be elusive unless significant changes beyond the coaching change happen.
The Tigers have to continue to recruit extremely well, which Orgeron mostly did, but they have to do a much better job of developing and maintaining 4- and 5-star recruits.
The 2021 “bounce-back” season, much like the 2020 season, saw far too much attrition on the roster for LSU to meet or exceed expectations.
There is nothing the Tigers or anyone else can do to prevent injuries, but they can have players better prepared to succeed in expanded roles that are thrust upon them by injuries.
They can do a better job of convincing players that they can still achieve the goals they envisioned when they signed with LSU even after their careers don’t begin exactly the way they envisioned.
But during the 2021 season, the Tigers lost too many important players to injury (and a few to the transfer portal) and didn’t have enough replacements prepared to mitigate the drop-off.
Just like 2020.
And so the bounce-back will bounce into the hands of Orgeron’s successor.