What kind of season would it take for LSU fans to feel confident in Ed Orgeron?
I’m not in the mind of LSU fans.
I don’t know what everybody in Baton Rouge is feeling about the 2018 season and more specifically, how they feel about the long-term future of Ed Orgeron. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like there’s unanimous support that he’s going to bring the Tigers back to glory as a top-5 program for years to come.
And if you are under the impression that there’s a unanimous belief in Orgeron internally and externally, perhaps you didn’t see one of the following things this offseason:
- LSU paid Dave Aranda, who was already the highest-paid assistant in America, a record-setting $10 million deal to stay in Baton Rouge, which is 71 percent of the $3.5 million that Orgeron made in 2017
- Orgeron ranked 10th among the 14 SEC coaches in salary in 2017, and didn’t get a new deal this offseason
- LSU had its worst recruiting class ranking since 2002
- ESPN’s FPI projected LSU to go 6-6 in 2018
All of these things came on the heels of a season in which LSU went a respectable 9-4. But one of those losses came to Troy at home, while another was a blowout loss at Mississippi State. And the lack of offensive progress was magnified in a 21-17 loss to Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl.
Is Orgeron on the proverbial hot seat? I’m not here to declare that officially. Unless we see a Scott Woodward-like quote that basically says yeah, we need our coach to win “X” amount of games to keep his job, hot-seat talk is all relative.
I’m interested in digging into a bigger issue. As in, what kind of season will LSU need to have for Tigers fans to truly feel good about Orgeron going forward?
The honeymoon phase of Orgeron’s underdog story to shed his interim tag is long gone. There’s nothing wrong with a feel-good story about the local guy leading the charge, but this is still LSU. You know, the program that won at least 8 games every season this century.
That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Nobody else in the SEC has done it.
That’s obviously why the bar is so high for Orgeron. Fail to win 8 games, and there’s probably not a whole lot Orgeron will be able to do to save his job. With that schedule, that’s not such a wild possibility. Opening with a defensively-stout team like Miami at a neutral site is a major opening week hurdle for an LSU team with a ton of offensive question marks.
There’s actually some recent history with fired SEC coaches losing big neutral-site games. The past 3 SEC coaches to lose neutral-site openers were fired either midseason or the following offseason. One, of course, was Les Miles in 2016. His preseason top-5 team disappointed against Wisconsin and The Mad Hatter was gone a month later after a 2-2 start.
Orgeron heard the chirping last year when his team got off to a 3-2 start. Can you imagine if the Tigers lost the opener and then came up short at Auburn 2 weeks later? There’s no doubt that people would be calling for Orgeron’s job by mid-September under that scenario.
That’s the most realistic “worst-case scenario” for Orgeron to start the year. That would confirm what skeptics worried about all offseason. The Tigers would be off to an 0-1 start to SEC play and all but eliminated from Playoff contention. That would be before games against Alabama and Georgia. Yikes.
On the flip side, those 4 games have the chance to do be major lifts for Orgeron’s long-term outlook. The Auburn game quieted some of those midseason concerns last year. If Orgeron leads LSU to a win at Jordan-Hare to kick off SEC play — especially after Auburn beat Alabama and Georgia there last year — suddenly we’re not talking about his job security.
That’s what I think will dictate the perception of Orgeron at season’s end. If he has a hollow 8-win season with losses to Miami, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama, a whole lot more people will doubt his ability to be the answer. That’s understandable. LSU has never strived to be a notch below those programs.
But not all 8-win seasons are created equal.
We all know the ultimate feather in the cap is beating Alabama. Ask Gus Malzahn and his new $7 million deal how beneficial it is to knock off Nick Saban. Nothing can change a coach’s reputation faster than taking down the GOAT. Malzahn is actually the only active coach to have multiple wins vs. Saban’s Alabama squad at the same school.
LSU’s Alabama losing streak is up to 7. End that and Orgeron is viewed in a much different light. Kicking off November with an Alabama win would spice up another bland 8-win season in a hurry. Now it’s, “Coach O only went 8-4 … but he did beat Saban.” That’s upside. That’s the most sure-fire way for Orgeron’s supporters to puff out their chests.
And to be clear, I don’t think the Orgeron skeptics should only change their tune in the event of a win vs. Alabama. If LSU wins 10 games with that schedule, call off the dogs. Five of LSU’s first 9 opponents won at least 9 games last year. That doesn’t include road trips to Florida and Texas A&M, which obviously both made major upgrades at head coach.
If programs like that — and others — pass LSU this year, there’s no question that Orgeron’s future will be in doubt. He knew that when he signed up. I’m sure that when he brought that binder to his interview, no pages in it read “how I plan to navigate LSU to 7 wins.” That’s never been the plan.
For LSU’s administration, the plan has always been pretty clear. Orgeron’s base contract isn’t much compared to other SEC coaches, but it’s loaded with incentives — $1.575 million to be exact — and a 2-way buyout that’ll be $8.5 million in 2018 and $6 million in 2019. The assumption is that Aranda was paid that record-setting deal as an insurance policy if Orgeron lays an egg at any point (Aranda and Orgeron are under contract through 2021).
Some are probably ready to cash in on that insurance policy, even if it means paying a buyout for Orgeron and Miles. Maybe they’ll convert into Orgeron supporters after LSU has an “us against the world” season and stuns everyone en route to an SEC Championship. That’s basically what Georgia did last year.
The bottom line for Orgeron is to avoid the land mine losses (Troy), pick up a couple of marquee wins and at least stay in the hunt for an SEC West title. If he can do that, he’ll buy himself another year and some more long-term support.
Easy enough, right?