First and 10: Backup plan? Coach O, high-flying LSU getting last laugh
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
They wanted everyone but him. Chased Jimbo Fisher 3 years ago, and took a shot at Tom Herman a year after that.
They wanted a rock star and eventually settled for a lovable lounge singer.
Now Ed Orgeron is making fools of everyone who doubted him.
“I know I wasn’t the first choice,” Orgeron told me in May during the SEC’s annual spring meetings in Destin, Fla. “That hasn’t mattered one single day.”
The only thing that matters now is Orgeron has LSU at the top of college football, the hottest team in the country heading into a critical stretch of games that ends with an epic regular season game of the year Nov. 9 at Alabama.
With a road win over Mississippi State this weekend, and a home win over Auburn on Oct. 26, LSU will be the No.1-ranked team in the first College Football Playoff poll of the season.
Not bad for a second – or third – choice.
“He’s the perfect coach for this program,” star LSU QB Joe Burrow told me this summer. “I don’t know what happened before or why it happened. I just know he’s the reason everything is pointing in the right direction.”
Sometimes we get too consumed with what could be, when what should be is right in front of our face. We want so badly for what we can’t have, we can’t see the value in what we’re overlooking.
The criticism of the Orgeron hire, when he was elevated from interim coach to head coach at the end of the 2016 regular season, was twofold: He struggled previously in his only attempt as a head coach (10-25 at Ole Miss from 2003-05), and his success as an interim coach at USC and LSU was built on the back of uber-talented teams with nothing to lose.
Only there’s one problem: Those USC and LSU teams were dysfunctional messes, and Orgeron hopped on their backs, bucked their wild ways and steered them to big wins. He might not be the hippest cat, or the trendy Xs and Os guru, but – as one LSU staffer told me – “he’s smart enough to know he’s not always the smartest guy in the room.”
And that, more than anything, is how the metamorphosis from good to great evolved since he took over a stale and stagnant program from Les Miles.
Orgeron realized that the smartest way back to the top for a program that won 2 national titles in 5 years in the early 2000s, was to fill his staff with elite assistant coaches.
It only took one full season for Orgeron to do what Miles refused to do for more than a decade: move the LSU offense into the 21st century with a spread system based on run-pass options.
The offense is lethal now, and the quarterback (Burrow) is playing as well or better than heralded quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa. Burrow is completing 80 percent of his passes, and if all goes as planned this week, he’ll break the LSU single season touchdown passes record (28) in all of 7 games.
“It’s remarkable how that program has changed,” an NFL scout told me Sunday. “I used to think there was this false bravado about that place because it was all about Les (Miles) and that whole mystique of his zaniness that TV fed. That program is about the players; always has been. That’s what (Orgeron) zeroed in on.”
2. RPO is the way to go
After the 2016 season, Orgeron began to put his stamp on the program by hiring offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
The idea, he told me in May, was to put LSU’s speedy skill players in space and allow them to use their athletic ability to significantly increase chunk plays. The reality is, he wanted to get as far away from Miles’ ground and pound offense as possible, and what better way than to throw a few million at a hot offensive coordinator?
Three weeks into the 2017 season, he knew he had made a mistake – “I did what I thought was best at the time,” he said – and by the end of the season, Canada was gone with a $1.7 million buyout.
But here’s the thing: Orgeron knew he screwed up – then fixed it. He didn’t blame anyone but himself.
He then hired longtime friend Steve Ensminger to run the offense, and convinced little known Ohio State backup quarterback Joe Burrow to come play quarterback for a program that wasn’t exactly churning out NFL QB prospects.
Week by week they slowly moved toward more spread offense principles, and by the last month of the season, were running 4- and 5-wide passing sets and quarterback run plays – and averaging more than 40 points a game. Then Orgeron took the biggest gamble of all after the 2018 season: He hired 29-year-old wunderkind Joe Brady (now 30) to work with Ensminger – more than three decades his elder — to add run-pass options to the LSU offense and share offensive coordinator duties.
This thing, very clearly, could have blown up, too. Only it didn’t – it flourished.
The offense is setting school records halfway through the season, Burrow is leading the Heisman Trophy race, and for the first time since 2011, LSU looks like a serious threat to Alabama in the SEC West Division and beyond.
The coach who won 3 SEC games in 3 years at Ole Miss, who wasn’t Jimbo Fisher or Tom Herman or any other coach LSU fans pined for, made a mistake, corrected the mistake and then supplemented the correction to put his team in position to win an SEC championship for the first time since 2011, and a national title for the first time in 12 years.
Not bad for a second choice.
3. The Impact of O, The Epilogue
Since making the switch to a spread system to begin the 2018 season, LSU is 16-3 under Orgeron — a healthy and hungry 16-3 that looks even better than the record.
This is a program that lost last year in Gainesville after Burrow threw a pick-6 late in the game, and lost a 7 OT game at Texas A&M that never should have been (a mistake SEC officials admitted). It very easily could be 18-1 since 2018.
The Tigers whipped SEC heavyweight Georgia last season and protected the SEC’s manhood by whipping UCF in a New Year’s 6 Bowl despite being down 9 defensive starters.
The only blemish in the past 2 seasons is a 29-0 loss to Alabama in Baton Rouge. Now LSU is a month from righting that wrong, and from Orgeron further putting his stamp on a program that did all it could to not hire him.
He’s recruiting better than Miles (and that’s saying plenty), and the momentum is palpable. With Miles, there was always some hesitation because of the program’s inability to recruit and develop quarterbacks.
Now there’s a true and deep connection of what could be with the most important position on the field, and LSU has 2 elite quarterbacks committed in the 2020 class.
When the Tigers won the national title in 2007, it came during an acid trip of a season – when LSU got to the BCS National Championship Game despite losing twice (both in overtime, one on the last week of the regular season) and because of a gift loss by No. 2 West Virginia to 7-loss rival Pittsburgh on championship weekend. No. 1 Missouri also was crushed by Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
Once in the BCS title game, it was simply a matter of overwhelming a slower, less talented Ohio State team. The feeling of what could be is completely different now.
All thanks to the second choice.
4. The other No. 2
Days after Florida ran off the mistake that was Jim McElwain, athletic director Scott Stricklin began pursuing Chip Kelly and Scott Frost.
Kelly was one of college football’s best coaches at Oregon before he left for the NFL, and Frost was the hot up and comer at UCF. It didn’t work with either, and Stricklin eventually hired a known commodity in Dan Mullen, his coach when Stricklin was AD at Mississippi State.
Kelly turned down Florida, and an industry source told me Florida eventually moved away from Frost because it didn’t believe he was ready for a mega Power 5 job. Now look:
Kelly is 4-14 at UCLA, and Frost’s Nebraska team just lost by 27 to Minnesota and is 8-10 in 2 seasons under Frost. Mullen, meanwhile, is 16-4 at Florida and in the thick of the SEC East Division race (more on that later).
Mullen made it work in last year’s 10-win season with a quarterback (Feleipe Franks) the previous staff all but gave up on, and he’s winning big this season with a backup quarterback (Kyle Trask) who never started a high school game.
All thanks to the second choice.
5. The Weekly Five
Five games against the spread:
- Florida (-7) at South Carolina
- LSU (-19) at Mississippi State
- Auburn (-17.5) at Arkansas
- Texas A&M at Ole Miss (+5.5)
- Tennessee at Alabama (-36)
Last week: 3-2 (.600)
Season: 16-20 (.444)
6. Your tape is your résumé
Each week an NFL scout breaks down draft prospects of an SEC player. This week: Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa:
“Some teams think he’s No. 1 overall, some teams have red flags. The biggest issue I keep hearing is here’s a guy who works 75 percent or more with a clean pocket, who has elite receivers and a running game threat that forces defenses to choose how to lose.
“Basically, he has everything going for him and the times when he doesn’t – the Georgia game in the SEC championship, or the Clemson game in the Playoff – he doesn’t look like the No. 1 overall guy.
“Me personally, I think when you start to have those arguments about a guy, when you start to nitpick, you have to look at him mechanically and physically. He’s big enough, he throws a nice, strong and catchable ball and he knows the concepts of the position and the passing game as well as anyone in the college game. Is he injury prone? Maybe. He has been relatively healthy this season, so that’s a good thing.
“He’s very accurate and he competes. What’s not to like? But there will be guys who try to tear him down over the next 7 or so months. It’s what we do in this business.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one big thing):
1. LSU: Mississippi State not good enough offensively to force LSU into letdown game.
2. Alabama: Who has Alabama played? Texas A&M is its best opponent, and the Aggies have wildly underachieved.
3. Georgia: Jake Fromm against South Carolina looked like freshman Jake Fromm against Auburn (in the regular season), and he couldn’t get out of it. A dangerous sign with the Gators 3 weeks away.
4. Florida: Gators need to steal a win at South Carolina without using injured DEs Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, giving them 3 weeks to heal.
5. Auburn: For those wondering about backup QB Joey Gatewood: If he hasn’t played yet, he’s not ready to play (considering Bo Nix’s inconsistencies).
6. Missouri: Tigers have quietly rolled off 5 consecutive wins since losing at Wyoming. It will be 7 by the time they travel to Georgia on Nov. 9.
7. Texas A&M: This weekend starts the month of getting better. Only problem: This is a dangerous game at Ole Miss and its efficient run game.
8. South Carolina: A 3rd-string quarterback for South Carolina vs. a banged up Florida defensive line. Not a bad tradeoff actually.
9. Kentucky: Wildcats had never regressed in a season under Mark Stoops. The only question now is how far from last year’s 10-win season does it fall?
10. Ole Miss: Texas A&M is next up trying to stop freshman QB John Rhys Plumlee. Here’s a hint: Alabama couldn’t do it.
11. Tennessee: You almost have to forget this game before the inevitable butt-kicking happens – and find 4 wins out of the final 5 games (it’s possible).
12. Mississippi State: See: Tennessee goal, (forget looming LSU whipping) and find 3 wins to finish the season and get 15 bowl practices for young players.
13. Arkansas: These are the weeks when you wonder what life would be like if Gus Malzahn really was interested in Arkansas instead of leveraging Auburn.
14. Vanderbilt: If you’re poised to win 2 games for the first time since 2010 – or heaven forbid – 1 game for the first time since 1990, don’t you just say screw it, and hire 30-year-old Joe Brady?
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: We’re not hearing nearly enough about my Missouri Tigers. They typically get better as the season progresses. I’m feeling pretty good about where we stand. Your thoughts?
Sean: There’s not a team on the remaining schedule that Missouri can’t beat – including Florida (in Columbia) and Georgia (at Athens). I don’t know if they will, but make no mistake, the SEC East Division is wide open. The 3 teams legitimately remaining in the race — Georgia, Florida and Missouri (everyone else needs chaos) — still must play each other.
I’m not surprised by the play of QB Kelly Bryant (1,575 yards, 12 TDs, 65 percent passes completed), or Tigers coach by Barry Odom retooling a defense and getting it to play at an elite level (15.8 ppg., 3rd in SEC, 11th in the nation).
The game at Georgia won’t be easy, but consider this: Missouri can lose to Georgia and still win the division. All it would need is another Georgia loss (hello, Florida) and wins over Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas. That’s not all that far-fetched.
Of course, Missouri still needs to be declared eligible for postseason play.
Missouri has appealed NCAA sanctions that prevent it from playing in the 2019 postseason. Until it hears from the NCAA about its appeal, Missouri is eligible to play in the SEC Championship Game and the 2019 postseason. The university expects to hear from the NCAA by the end of this month.
If the appeal is denied, Missouri will not be eligible to play in the SEC Championship Game, and will automatically be slotted in last place in the East Division — no matter its record.
9. Numbers game
48. Through 48 games, the comparison of Kirby Smart to former Georgia coach Mark Richt is stunning.
Through 48 games:
Kirby Smart: 37-11, 1 SEC Championship, 2 SEC East titles, 4 top 10 recruiting classes, 3 home L's to unranked teams.
Mark Richt: 39-9, 1 SEC Championship, 2 SEC East titles, 4 Top 10 recruiting classes, 0 home L's to unranked teams.
— Neil W. Blackm🦃n (@nwblackmon) October 13, 2019
Those home losses are particularly galling to Georgia fans.
The latest loss to an unranked team came Saturday against South Carolina and brought with it yet another perplexing time management/odd coaching decision for Smart.
Deciding between kicking a long field goal or trying to get closer with another play (that eventually moved UGA farther away with a penalty) will be a moot point if Georgia can rally and win the East Division and get a shot at Alabama or LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
10. Quote to note
Florida QB Kyle Trask: “There are two ways you can go. You can either lose and start pointing fingers, or you can lose and come together.”