Why LSU's model of success is the exception, not the new rule
Now coming to a football team near you are the words “let’s build it the LSU way.”
It’s a natural course of action for an athletic director or coach to say after watching the Tigers stomp Clemson to cap the best season in college football history. LSU wasn’t the team oozing with 5-star players like Alabama or Ohio State. It wasn’t the preseason top-2 team with the preseason All-American quarterback. It wasn’t even the team with a coach making $5 million a year.
Shoot, you look around and see that Justin Jefferson was a 2-star recruit, Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a 3-star recruit and Joe Burrow was a backup at Ohio State.
Why wouldn’t teams across the country follow the LSU model to success?
That’ll be far easier said than done, even for LSU.
This 2019 team was a rare combination of perfection that we seldom see in sports. It had everything a team could ever want — an all-time level of focus, the perfect blend of ego-less coaches and the unique duo of talent (with a handful of former 5-star recruits) and confidence in the locker room. That’s on both sides of the ball. The reality is, if one of those things wasn’t there, we’re not talking about LSU as a national champ.
The odds suggest that the Tigers caught lightning in a bottle. The human eye suggests that a team that beat 5 of the final top 8 teams in the Associated Press was anything but lucky.
We have a tendency in sports to say “who’s the next ________?” As in there’s some sort of farm where these players/teams/coaches are developed, and just because we’ve seen it once now means that we’re destined to see it again. What’s more realistic as it relates to this LSU team is we’ll see some take bits and pieces this model and attempt to replicate it (hopefully LSU’s emergence will result in more teams being willing to overhaul their outdated offense).
But I’ll be honest — I don’t know that we’ll ever see another Joe Burrow. It’s hard to imagine any college player having a better year against that type of competition than the one Burrow just had. Even if Joe Brady had stayed in Baton Rouge for 25 years and became what Bud Foster was to Virginia Tech — that’s not happening because he’s off to the Carolina Panthers — the odds of finding someone with Burrow’s skill set and attitude are virtually non-existent.
This doesn’t grow on trees, folks:
Joe Burrow has only played through the 4th quarter in two of LSU’s six games this season:
Sept. 7: LSU 45, Texas 38
Tonight: LSU 42, Florida 28
In the Texas game, he iced it with this scramble and throw to Justin Jefferson: pic.twitter.com/FvsYJjKhad
— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) October 13, 2019
Everyone is going to want to search for the next Brady to revamp their program’s offense, even though he was the first 30-year old/human to come in and implement a system that yielded 726 points in a season. As Brady would attest to, it makes all the difference when an all-time great is leading the offense.
Burrow set the bar at a place that perhaps no college quarterback will ever reach. Yet what’s also bound to happen this offseason? Everyone is going to ask if a random grad transfer can be the next Burrow. Fair or not, all future LSU quarterbacks will be judged on the Burrow scale.
And look, I’m guilty of this to a certain extent. I posed the idea of Kyle Trask following in the footsteps of Burrow by taking the next major step in Year 2 as an upperclassman starter on a really good team after taking over amidst atypical circumstances in Year 1. Does that mean I believe Trask will put up Burrow-like numbers? No way.
What Burrow did by throwing 60 touchdown passes was far less repeatable than Cam Newton, who famously was the only offensive player drafted off that 2010 Auburn team. As brilliant as Burrow was, that record-setting production couldn’t have happened without so many of the factors around him. Ja’Marr Chase and Jefferson were a rare pass-catching duo, and the fact that LSU had 3 other big-time weapons in the passing game (Terrace Marshall, Thad Moss and Edwards-Helaire) who caught passes all over the field was what made LSU impossible to defend.
You don’t put together the best single-season résumé in college football history by simply fitting a few nice pieces together. Across the board, this was a season that we’ll rarely see.
At the center of it was Ed Orgeron, who not only gets credit for putting this coaching staff together and recruiting Burrow, but also for keeping this team focused on the task at hand. Even Dabo Swinney, who is already one of the best coaches we’ve ever seen in this sport, had moments like the UNC game where keeping his team focused wasn’t always easy.
That’s not my way of saying that 1 season puts Orgeron on Swinney’s level. We’re not having that conversation yet. But I would argue that the job Orgeron did with this team was every bit as impressive as the one Swinney did in 2018.
Those 2 are part of an elite group of active coaches with a national title:
- Ed Orgeron, LSU
- Dabo Swinney, Clemson
- Nick Saban, Alabama
- Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
- Mack Brown, Texas
- Les Miles, Kansas
And obviously that fraternity is cut in half if you limit it to the 6 years of the Playoff era. In all likelihood, that group will grow. But not by much. There are very few people on Earth who have the capability of leading a team to that kind of accomplishment. If there was a proven formula for everyone to follow it, it would’ve been followed by now.
Going 15-0 is next to impossible. That’s why including 2018 Clemson, only 2 of the total 384 Power 5 teams that have competed in the Playoff era — or 1/20th of 1% — have been able to do so. And as a result, we dubbed them all-time teams.
As Clemson learned on Monday night, the 2019 team didn’t have the all-time abilities of the 2018 team. In all likelihood, the same will be true at LSU in 2020. Even if the Tigers had the likes of Burrow and Co. all returning, it’s still extremely unlikely that we would have seen a group that focused and dominant.
But did this year raise the ceiling for LSU? Absolutely. It’s amazing to think about where this program was 16 months ago having not played in a New Year’s 6 Bowl during the Playoff era and in desperate need of saving Orgeron’s job. Now, this program should have a yearly goal of winning the SEC and reaching the Playoff. With the way LSU is stockpiling talent, it’ll have as good a chance as anyone to win a 4-team tournament if it can get there.
That’s the silver lining for LSU fans watching this dream season come to an end. Consecutive top 5 classes will prevent this program from being overmatched.
The new offense isn’t going anywhere even though Brady is off to the NFL, much like Alabama kept Lane Kiffin’s offense in place after he left the Crimson Tide at the end of 2016. Steve Ensminger isn’t going anywhere, and he’s going to do everything in his power to replicate the concepts that took LSU’s offense to new heights. Alabama did that post-Kiffin, and LSU could do that post-Brady. That’s going to be LSU’s way of trying to sustain this level of success. It helped Alabama transition into the latter half of the 2010s. Perhaps it’ll be what ushers LSU into the 2020s.
Chasing that championship feeling is different from trying to repeat that exact model of success. Twenty years from now, we’ll look back on 2019 LSU with an even deeper appreciation than we have right now. It could certainly serve as the beginning of a special time in Baton Rouge.
Just remember that it was far more the exception than the rule — no matter how much the offseason chatter suggests otherwise.