SEC 360: Joe Burrow, Ed Orgeron and the best offense in the country. How LSU found redemption, 8 years later
Sometimes it takes 8 years to finish what you started.
It was late at night, last November, and Ed Orgeron was fidgeting at the podium after a devastating 29-0 loss to Alabama. Behind him stretched a large step-and-repeat banner, its purple coloring nearly camouflaging him as the purple shirt he wore and the blood in his face gave off a similar hue.
Though Orgeron wore the anguish of his team getting physically dominated on both sides of the football, there was intensity in his eyes that assured he wouldn’t tolerate losing to Alabama again. “We have a good football team,” Orgeron said 14 months ago. “I’m not going to be down on this team. We’re going to look at it and we are going to go forward. And we are going to get onto Arkansas and we are going to finish strong. We are going to have a hell of a season.”
Orgeron was nearly right, as the only other loss his team endured to conclude the 2018 season was a 7-overtime circus in College Station, Texas, on Nov. 24. After a win in the Fiesta Bowl over ever-pesky UCF, LSU quietly put a period on a 10-3 season.
To defeat Alabama, he knew he was going to have to recruit on the same level and that talent could no longer be a stumbling block. As a result, LSU finished the 2019 recruiting season with the 5th best class in the country, one that included 5-stars Derek Stingley, John Emery Jr. and Marcel Brooks.
After the 2019 signing day, the talk in the SEC was mostly about Alabama’s “revenge tour,” alluding to the vehemence that must surely exist from being slapped around by Clemson in the national title game in Santa Clara, California, on Jan. 7. No one anticipated what LSU was fully capable of, or the season for the ages that followed.
The first inkling of how good this LSU team could be occurred in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 7 against the University of Texas. In front of more than 98,000 fans, previously unproven quarterback Joe Burrow completely shredded the Texas defense by completing 31-of-39 passes for 471 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Pulling out a win in a hostile environment (and putting the pause button on Sam Ehlinger’s portentous message of “We’re baaaack!”) set the tone for the rest of the season for LSU. The Tigers then became the lumberjacks of the league, chopping down redwood after redwood on their way to a perfect regular season and division title. On Oct.12, down went Florida. Boom! On Oct. 19, down went Mississippi State. Boom! And on Oct. 26, down went Auburn. Boom!
But then the Tigers had to fell the biggest, most towering redwood of them all, Alabama.
Before the Alabama game, the question was, “How does Orgeron instill enough confidence in his team to recover from a 29-point shutout exacerbated by an 8-year drought?”
The answer: Positivity. You believe in them.
Standing before his men the week of the Alabama game, exactly 365 days since he stood purple-faced at the podium in Death Valley, Orgeron’s message was simple: “We’re the better team.”
That message resonated with his kids.
And instead of approaching the game with great emotion as his team had in Baton Rouge a year earlier, Orgeron stressed poise and physicality. That night in Baton Rouge he had lamented his team got whipped in the trenches, and he’d be damned if that happened again. As a result, it was a calmer, more confident LSU team that arrived at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa to face the No. 3 team in the country on Nov. 9.
Beating the bully in its own backyard was the feat cast before LSU, but there would have been no feat without the madness. That began all the way back on Jan. 9, 2012, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Facing Alabama for the 2nd time that season, undefeated, No. 1-ranked LSU could have walked away with its 3rd national title in 9 seasons, but instead left the Superdome with the bitterness of unfinished business and the ache of a season that could have been.
The madness would build for the next 8 seasons as Alabama rolled up victory after victory over LSU and established a standard of dominance in the rivalry.
In the meantime, LSU parted ways with head coach Les Miles and endured the flux of searching for a new coach. Orgeron, who was then the defensive line coach, slapped the interim HC sticker on his barrel chest, downed his energy drinks and prayed for his dream job.
He got it.
LSU didn’t know it then, but it was the best decision the program could have made.
Orgeron brought a brand of rawhide the program lacked. To underscore that point, shortly after the hire, one of his childhood friends commented thusly on his ability to charge up a team: “He could motivate a statue.”
That motivation, that intensity, and that belief helped LSU to overcome the Alabama hurdle with a thrilling 46-41 victory. The win not only erased the curse, it put LSU in the driver’s seat for whatever it wanted — the West, the whole SEC, the College Football Playoff, the 24-carat trophy.
For a moment after defeating Alabama, though, the Tigers would have the concern of the old nemesis resurfacing. Even after the LSU defeat, the Tide were threatening to sneak in the College Football Playoff as a 1-loss team. Auburn assured it didn’t.
Thankfully, LSU didn’t need to beat Alabama twice in one season. It proved that it was the better team in the first meeting.
Now with Alabama out of its rearview, LSU turned to the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, where it faced a red-hot Georgia team that had quelled the terrors of a home loss to South Carolina and was storming into Buckhead with one of the top defenses in the country. No matter. LSU shucked Georgia’s teeth and made them believe it was corn, rolling to a 37-10 victory and answering the semester-long question of, “Who’s In?”
The answer? LSU, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
In the interim, LSU was busy collecting more hardware than an antique mall. Ja’Marr Chase won the Biletnikoff for best receiver in the country, Grant Delpit collected the Jim Thorpe Award for top defensive back and Burrow took home the Heisman.
An impassioned Heisman speech by Burrow, underscoring the poverty in his hometown of The Plains, Ohio, put a compelling wrinkle in the LSU story as the Tigers moved closer to a championship.
LSU had the luxury of returning to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for its Peach Bowl semfinal matchup against Oklahoma, and if it could get past the Sooners, it would travel to yet another Mercedes-Benz stadium — this time in New Orleans — to compete for the ‘ship.
As the slogan goes, it was “The Best or Nothing” for LSU.
After dominating Oklahoma, Burrow and the Tigers now faced defending national champion Clemson, which was riding into the Big Easy with the wind of a 29-game winning streak behind its wagon, having knocked off Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal.
So the story was not “Can Joe Burrow get redemption against his former team?” but rather, “Which Tigers are the real Tigers and which Death Valley is the real Death Valley?”
For a moment, Clemson wanted to convince you that it would own the night. Up 17-7 and forcing LSU into troubling 1st-quarter field position, the Tigers — Clemson, that is — seized early control and for a moment appeared it might become the first back-to-back national champion since 2011-12 Alabama.
But Burrow was unfazed. With the ball resting on the LSU 41 with 9:53 to go in the 2nd quarter, Burrow loaded up and found Ja’Marr chase on a 56-yard sizzler that put LSU in business near the Clemson goal line. A 3-yard keeper by Burrow cut the deficit to 3 and gas-lit the team’s flame. The Tigers — LSU, that is — added 2 more scores before the half, the offense loosening up now, and it was on to the program’s 4th national title overall and 3rd since the year 2000.
So how did LSU do it? How was LSU able to pull off one of the greatest seasons in college football history?
It was the versatility and toughness of Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It was the gradual uptick of the LSU defense — a squad once criticized as the team’s weak link. It was the physicality of the offensive line — those beef-eaters Burrow was first to laud in his Heisman acceptance speech. It was the swagger and big-play ability of Thaddeus Moss. It was the 1-2 punch of Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. It was the maturation and lock-down ability of Kristian Fulton. It was the ingenuity of offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and passing game coordinator Joe Brady. It was Ed Orgeron’s belief, motivation, and leadership. And it was Joe Burrow’s golden arm.
One play that embodied this LSU team and somewhat defined its season occurred late in the Alabama game on a screen pass to Edwards-Helaire. With just over 9 minutes left, Alabama brought pressure. Burrow appeared to be hemmed up, but then rolled to his right and hit Edwards-Helaire near the sideline. Two crimson jerseys quickly converged on the LSU running back, who lunged forward but could not gain any progress.
But he kept fighting. And fighting. And fighting.
As Edwards-Helaire was collapsing to the ground, he had the presence of mind — and intestinal fortitude — to spin toward the 1st down marker, which he crossed with his outstretched arms as the ball hit the turf.
Yes, there was something incredibly special about these LSU Tigers. But more important, there’s something special about this LSU football program.
In the end, it was fitting that LSU won the 2019 national title in the same building it had once lost it. Perhaps time has a way of closing up old wounds.
But maybe LSU has learned something from this saga that’s a bit more enduring.
No, it’s not Alabama. But it doesn’t have to be.
Being LSU seems to be working out just fine.