First and 10: You might have questions about LSU's QB situation, but Ed Orgeron does not
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
He has been here before, staring at a decision between significant change vs. getting swallowed by the beast that is LSU football.
Why wouldn’t LSU coach Ed Orgeron make the right choice again?
“Everybody is just yearning for it,” Orgeron said. “I can feel it.”
And then, the qualifier: “Myles Brennan is still our quarterback.”
Because that’s the way it should be.
In this age of always looking to what’s next and what if, the impulse reaction is to dance with change. We always love the backup quarterback. He’s different, he’s fresh, he’s talented.
And more than anything, he’s not the starter.
So when LSU backup quarterback TJ Finley played well in LSU’s rout of South Carolina – the first time defending national champion LSU looked like the LSU of old in this uncertain COVID season – the college football world immediately moved to sit Brennan.
Only Brennan isn’t the reason LSU couldn’t tackle in the first 3 games of the season (and, frankly, not so well last weekend against South Carolina).
Brennan, who is dealing with an abdomen injury, isn’t the reason LSU can’t cover in the secondary, despite having the best cover corner in college football (Derek Stingley Jr.). Brennan isn’t the reason LSU gave up 44 points and lost in the opener to a Mississippi State team with a new coach, a new quarterback and a new offensive system – the same team that has since averaged all of 10 points a game.
Brennan isn’t the reason LSU wasn’t within 20 yards of receivers on multiple touchdown throws in a wild loss to Missouri.
All Brennan did in 3 games as a starter was throw for 1,112 yards and 11 TDs. The Tigers lost 2 of the 3 games he started, with the only win against SEC tomato can Vanderbilt.
Finley stepped in Saturday and everything looked right in Red Stick.
The defense played better (for the most part) and even got a defensive touchdown. The offense did just about anything it wanted, averaging 7.2 yards per play.
The Tigers rolled, Saturday night in Baton Rouge was rocking and rolling, and less than a minute into the postgame Zoom call, Orgeron already was answering questions about a looming quarterback controversy.
“Maybe on y’all’s part,” Orgeron told media on the call when asked about a potential controversy. “It ain’t going to be on our part, I can tell you that.”
Because of all the right decisions Orgeron has made since his last-man-standing hiring quickly became national championship coach, nothing could be more wrong than giving up on Brennan.
Orgeron was the same coach who convinced a career backup named Joe Burrow to come to LSU instead of Cincinnati.
The coach who bailed on offensive coordinator Matt Canada after giving him $1 million a year to run the offense, then hired his friend Steve Ensminger to right the ship and then hired wunderkind Joe Brady to take the offense to a championship level.
The same coach who found a way to massage the ego of a 60-something lifer and pull the reins on a 20-something budding star, to make it all work in a national championship season that produced the most prolific offense in college football history.
You don’t really think he’s going to get all sideways because a freshman quarterback plays smart and protects the ball while playing for his injured starter, do you?
Finley completed 80% of his passes (compared to Brennan’s 60%) because the offense was structured to give Finley easy throws and keep him from down and distance trouble.
There were very little intermediate and deep throws where Finely was forced to read coverage and make difficult throws.
An offense can’t consistently move the ball within those constraints. Eventually, SEC defenses – except, in this case, South Carolina — will adjust and take away safe throws. South Carolina couldn’t stop the run, which made every throw that much easier for Finley. LSU ran for 276 yards against South Carolina — the same run game that had 129 combined yards in losses to Missouri and Mississippi State.
If you can’t run the ball consistently, every throw becomes an adventure against exotic blitzes and/or combination coverages. That makes Brennan’s numbers even more impressive.
That makes the idea of pulling Brennan for Finley – with some key SEC games on the horizon – utterly laughable.
2. The future at the position
Brennan has waited 4 years for this opportunity, despite being recruited over every season he has been on campus.
Even when it looked like the job was his early on, it wasn’t. Orgeron tried to play him as a true freshman in 2017 (Brennan wasn’t ready), and after Danny Etling graduated, he was set up as QB1 for 2018. Then Orgeron recruited Burrow, and Brennan sat the next 2 seasons.
He then throws 11 touchdowns in 3 games, but LSU was 1-2. And like all things in the world of a quarterback, you are what your record says you are.
But think about this when addressing any potential quarterback change: LSU could have as many as 3 seasons with Brennan. The NCAA made this season free for every player; it doesn’t count against your 5-year clock.
Brennan could play this season as a redshirt junior, play in 2021 again as a junior and play in 2022 as a senior. If you have a quarterback who already has invested 3 years in your program and your culture, who has played well in the 3 games he has started, who the locker room respects, why in the world would you pull him at this point when his future – your team’s future – is right in front of him?
In some strange way, Brennan is essentially back to his sophomore season when Burrow arrived. It’s a do-over for the long-ago 4-star recruit that every SEC school wanted.
Considering the way Brennan threw the ball in the first month of the season, there’s every reason to believe he will continue to develop. His numbers as a first-year starter are well ahead of Burrow’s from 2018 (Burrow had 16 TDs in 13 games).
Don’t think Orgeron will make the mistake of giving up on Brennan after 3 games.
3. Another big decision, The Epilogue
Understand this, the smart play of Finley has given Orgeron the one thing every coach desperately needs: competition at the most important position on the field.
Or at the very least, the look and feel of competition.
The more Brennan knows Finley is there, the harder he practices, the more detailed he becomes in his approach to the position, and the better he plays.
The better he plays, the more dangerous LSU becomes.
Finley graduated early and was a midterm enrollee. He worked with the team during bowl practices, and dropped weight and got in better shape during pandemic time away from the facility.
He arrived at camp and players immediately started to believe in him. Then he went out and won an SEC game in his first opportunity.
“I know this,” Orgeron says, “if Myles ain’t doing good, I can put in TJ”
4. The payoff from the layoff
On the way back from a demoralizing loss to Texas A&M – before the season was upended with more than 30 positive COVID cases – the Florida staff already was working on significant changes to a team that had College Football Playoff hopes prior to the season.
Among the moves, one staffer told me:
— More touches for freshman tailback Nay’Quan Wright, who had made significant strides in practice and earned more carries against the Aggies.
— A greater push to get WR Trevon Grimes more involved (8 catches in first 3 games) in the offense. His size and speed are matchup problems.
— More deep throws from QB Kyle Trask. The staff feels they have matchup advantages with the height and ball skills with TE Kyle Pitts and WRs Justin Shorter and Grimes.
— Less exotic blitz packages from the defense. Specifically, less pressure that takes too long to get home (see: corner, safety blitzes).
The moves were made with the idea that because of the struggles on defense, the margin for error on offense is closing. Any wasted series likely means chasing points.
5. The Weekly 5
Five picks against the spread.
- Georgia (-14.5) at Kentucky
- LSU (Pick ’em) at Auburn
- Arkansas (+15) at Texas A&M
- Missouri (+11.5) at Florida
- Mississippi State at Alabama (-33)
Last week: 2-3.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down an SEC player. This week: Georgia DE/LB Azeez Ojulari:
“So let’s start out with I really like him. Great motor, great athleticism and he’s twitchy. But if you don’t see him and see a guy like (K’Lavon) Chaisson, you’re not being honest with yourself. I thought Chaisson was a reach in last year’s (NFL) draft because he’s a tweener. He’s not an end, he’s an edge guy. And by that, I mean, he has to be in the perfect system to utilize his talents. If you’re not running a 50 (defense), he’s going to be out of position. I feel the same about Ojulari.
“If he’s in a 50 (defense), he’s a linebacker/edge guy, and his job is to get the quarterback – and drop in coverage if needed. If you’re running a 4-3, forget it. He has no position. He’s not big enough to be an anchor or rush end; he’ll get overwhelmed. And he’s out of position as a Sam or Will (linebacker). He’s there for one thing and one thing only: get the quarterback. So make sure you’ve got the right system.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: This nonsense about the Jaylen Waddle injury not impacting Alabama’s CFP run? Crazy talk. You’re talking about losing the most dynamic player in the game. Slade Bolden isn’t changing that.
2. Georgia: Unless he’s physically not ready to play, this week is where we see QB JT Daniels. You know what you have in Stetson Bennett. You don’t know how much better you are (or worse) with Daniels.
3. Florida: Now more than ever, Gators must lean on QB Kyle Trask and an offense that can score every possession. Hey, don’t knock it. It has led to more than a few Big 12 titles over the past 10-15 years.
4. Texas A&M: A dicey spot for the Aggies. The Arkansas defense isn’t a fluke, and a loss here – at home – will undo all the goodwill earned by beating Florida.
5. Missouri: Tigers are quickly becoming a balanced offense. That’s significant stress for a Florida defense that hasn’t proven it can stop the run or pass.
6. LSU: The gutty, gritty games of the last few years in the LSU-Auburn rivalry are over. This will be ugly. LSU’s ugly, however, has a better chance to get a lot prettier before the end of the season.
7. Auburn: Imagine how ugly – frankly, hostile – The Plains would be for coach Gus Malzahn if SEC officials hadn’t gifted Auburn the Arkansas and Ole Miss wins? Those fat cat boosters would be pooling $20-plus million as we speak.
8. Kentucky: The philosophy of avoiding the passing game doesn’t work (it was fun while it lasted in 2019). At some point, Terry Wilson or Joey Gatewood must complete enough throws to give UK balance.
9. Tennessee: The mirage of 2019 has become Reality, 2020 (more on that later). If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: only a unique coach pulls Tennessee from the pile of average.
10. South Carolina: Gamecocks have 2 weeks to prepare for a home game against Texas A&M. A line in the sand game if there ever was one in the Will Muschamp era. A must-have win.
11. Arkansas: The next step in the evolution of a program under a new coach: How do they respond to A) success and B) a bye week. It’s a double hit this week against Texas A&M – and a chance to change the way they think about football in Fayetteville.
12. Ole Miss: Two ways to look at the 2020 season: Rebels should be 2-3 (thanks, SEC officials, Part II), or Rebels could be 0-5 (thanks, Kentucky).
13. Mississippi State: Are there holes in the Alabama secondary? Plenty. But this offense still is figuring out Mike Leach’s Air Raid. If this were Washington State’s offense of 2019, it would be one wild game.
14. Vanderbilt: I’ll just throw this out there for those who like to wager on games: Arkansas DC Barry Odum and Vandy head coach Derek Mason are good friends. The talent level on defense between Arkansas and Vanderbilt isn’t that significant.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I don’t know why I get sucked in every year. Every (expletive deleted) year! What happened to the Tennessee team that finished last year by winning a big bowl game!
Art: I feel your pain, my man. But what did you (expletive deleted) expect?
Let me explain to you what you’re dealing with: a coach who, 5 games into his 3rd season, is publicly declaring the Tennessee job a “helluva challenge” and that he knew “exactly where it was at” when he took the job.
In his 3rd season.
After losing his 3rd straight game.
These aren’t just losses, either. These are emasculations at the hands of two bitter rivals (Georgia and Alabama) and a program Tennessee has owned for decades (Kentucky).
The 48-17 loss to Alabama last week was Pruitt’s 12th loss of at least 21 points in 30 career games at Tennessee. The Vols have lost all 3 games to Alabama by an average of 22 points and all 5 games to Georgia and Florida by at least 23 points.
If you’d like to hold onto an 8-game winning streak against the nobodies of the SEC and a couple of nonconference gimme putts, please, by all means, go right ahead. I prefer to stay in the real world, where after the Alabama loss, Pruitt said, “I’m excited about being here.”
Why wouldn’t he be? He’s getting paid $4 million a year to win games that mean nothing and getting blown out in the games that do.
We can talk all we want about Pruitt’s ability to recruit, and how his back-to-back top 15 classes are the foundation of the future, and how a potential top 10 class this December will only add to it.
But at some point, if those recruiting classes aren’t paying off on the field, the finger must be pointed to the coach developing those players. Of all the dopey things Butch Jones did (champions for life, turnover trash can, etc.) as coach at Tennessee, nothing compares to firing an assistant coach (Jimmy Brumbaugh) at halftime, and proudly proclaiming he’d coach the defensive line – and then watching that defensive line play poorly the following week. Nothing even close.
Pruitt has one more chance at a rival this season (vs. Florida in the season finale). Win there, and he can claim things are turning. Lose, and 2021 will be a win big or walk season.
9. Numbers: 12
If only it were the NCAA-worst 12 interceptions thrown by Mississippi State quarterbacks in 4 games. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised by the struggles of the Air Raid.
In both of Mike Leach’s previous coaching jobs, his first season was transitional. The quarterbacks struggled, the offense was questioned.
And the numbers are nearly identical to this season at Mississippi State.
— In 2000 at Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury had a 116.9 passer rating and 21 TDs and 17 INTs, and a 5.84 average per attempt.
— In 2012 at Washington State, Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday combined for a 116.9 passer rating and 23 TDs and 21 INTs, and a 6.35 average per attempt.
— So far this season, KJ Costello and Will Rogers have combined for a 118.8 passer rating and 7 TDs and 12 INTs, and a 6.2 average yards per attempt.
Only the 2000 Texas Tech team (7-6) had a winning record. The 2012 Washington State team was 3-9.
10. Quote to note
Florida coach Dan Mullen on how he has dealt with his quarantine after a positive COVID test: “I get my bedroom and I have an office off my bedroom. So I’ve been in there the whole time.”