Ed Orgeron has about two-thirds of a season under his belt as head coach. Dave Aranda is going into his second campaign as defensive coordinator. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is now in Year 1.
Needless to say, there has been a lot of turnover at LSU, and most of it was long overdue. Former coach Les Miles won a national championship in 2007 and always recruited at a high level, but he left plenty of wins on the table before mercifully being handed a pink slip.
When Aranda arrived from Wisconsin in 2016, he immediately turned around a defense that wasn’t playing as well as the assembled talent suggested it should’ve been. If the Tigers are to be legit contenders in the SEC once again, then Canada needs to make a similar impact right away by bringing this offense into the 21st century.
Putting together a depth chart full of blue-chippers has never been an issue in Baton Rouge, but it’s time for this program to be more than an NFL farm team.
2016 Projection: 10-2 (6-2)
Actual Record: 7-4* (5-3)
* doesn’t include bowl game
When he was originally handed the reigns after Miles unceremoniously got shown the door, Orgeron wasn’t a sure bet to be anything more than an interim coach.
However, he completely changed the Bayou Bengals’ collective mood by making football fun again — practice in particular was a daily grind in the worst possible way under Miles. In the end, Orgeron proved that he was the man for the job on a full-time basis.
That being said, it remains to be seen if his rope will be any longer for no other reason than he’s a proud native of the Pelican State. There’s no question that the locals relate to him, although understanding the unique dialect in Cajun country doesn’t get him any closer to beating Alabama. That’s why Miles is no longer employed: He couldn’t defeat the Crimson Tide anymore.
Remember, it wasn’t that long ago when Orgeron was little more than a defensive line coach and recruiting hero. His résumé suggests that he’s more sergeant than general.
Danny Etling remains atop the depth chart after unseating the much-maligned Brandon Harris a few games into this past season.
Harris is now at North Carolina, and nobody in purple and gold at Tiger Stadium will miss him. But Etling transferred to LSU in part because he couldn’t hold on to the starting gig at lowly Purdue, so he’s fairly limited in terms of pure skill.
Canada will have to wave his magic wand again, like he’s done before at N.C. State and Pittsburgh. One-time Florida passer Jacoby Brissett was quite productive with the Wolfpack, as was former Tennessee QB Nathan Peterman for the Panthers. Both have Canada to thank for maximizing their college careers and getting them to the NFL.
Making the matter more complicated is Etling’s back issue. He was close to 100 percent when fall camp started this week, but he’s not all the way there just yet.
Strengths & Weaknesses
It’s a distinct possibility that the best tailback to ever put on a Tigers uniform is being replaced by a ball carrier even more gifted.
Leonard Fournette is now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars after going No. 4 overall in the draft, yet it was Derrius Guice who led the conference in rushing a year ago. And he only started half the season because Fournette was in and out of the lineup due to injury.
On the other side of the ball, the straw that stirs the drink is Arden Key. When he’s operating at full strength, he’s the most fierce pass rusher in the league and the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. But we still don’t know why he skipped all of spring practice — we likely never will — and he waited too long to have offseason shoulder surgery.
New stars must make names for themselves on defense. Jamal Adams, Tre’Davious White, Duke Riley, Kendell Beckwith and Davon Godchaux were all drafted in April.
Week 1: vs. BYU (W)*
This may be a neutral-site matchup, but Baton Rouge is a lot closer to Houston than Provo. Consider this a pseudo home game for the Bayou Bengals in the opener.
Week 2: vs. Chattanooga (W)
The SEC is notorious for scheduling cupcake opponents in Week 2 before the conference slate kicks into high gear. The Mocs are an FCS team and should be treated accordingly.
Week 3: at Mississippi State (L)
Nick Fitzgerald struggled to get anything started offensively in 2016 at Death Valley. But at Davis Wade, he’s much more dangerous for a young LSU defense.
Week 4: vs. Syracuse (W)
The ACC might be catching up to the SEC at the top, but it isn’t nearly as deep toward the bottom. The Orange should have trouble keeping this one competitive.
Week 5: vs. Troy (W)
After five straight Sun Belt titles, the Trojans have come up empty since 2010. The Tigers’ four out-of-conference opponents are relatively weak this season.
Week 6: at Florida (L)
Had it not been for Hurricane Matthew and how that situation was bungled by the Bayou Bengals, this game would be at Tiger Stadium instead of Ben Hill Griffin.
Week 7: vs. Auburn (L)
In a battle of Tigers, Auburn appears to now have a difference maker at quarterback in Jarrett Stidham. LSU is still searching for its 5-star field general, unfortunately.
Week 8: at Ole Miss (W)
The Rebels couldn’t stop anybody on the ground last year. Fournette set a then-Tigers record against them with 284 yards rushing. Guice should have a field day.
Week 9: bye
Week 10: at Alabama (L)
Orgeron got his initial taste of this rivalry as the top face on the totem pole in 2016. It didn’t go well in a 10-0 loss. The Bayou Bengals have had no answers for the ‘Bama defense lately.
Week 11: vs. Arkansas (W)
The Razorbacks were absolutely shredded by LSU in the running game this past season, as Guice ran for 252 yards and Fournette sprinkled in 98 of his own.
Week 12: at Tennessee (W)
The Volunteers played atrocious defense a year ago down the stretch, and now Derek Barnett is in the pros. The Tigers should run wild, this time in Knoxville.
Week 13: vs. Texas A&M (W)
Even if the Bayou Bengals won’t sling the rock all over the yard with Etling, at least they know who their QB is going to be. The Aggies still don’t at this point.
* at NRG Stadium in Houston
2017 Projection: 8-4 (4-4)
Final Standings: 4th in SEC West
While I’m higher than most on Arkansas in 2017, I’m lower than most on LSU. The scheduling snafu with Florida is certainly a factor.
In the end, there’s little reason to believe that this version of the Tigers under Orgeron is markedly different than what we’d gotten used to under Miles. Chances are, they’re going to run the ball well and play incredibly tough defense.
But will the Bayou Bengals still be behind the curve when it comes to the aerial attack? Not only does Etling possess a low ceiling, but his two top receivers and two top tight ends are all gone off last year’s roster. Also, the drama surrounding Key has smelled fishy for months. He was the one sure thing defensively, but now it’s hard to tell.
Orgeron enjoyed a tremendous offseason on the booster-club circuit and couldn’t be more passionate about LSU. Be patient, though. It’s going to take some time.