It’s easy to forget now, nearly 3 years later, in the immediate wake of the biggest win of his life. But the hot seat was waiting for Ed Orgeron almost from the moment he was promoted to the full-time gig at LSU, and it only got hotter.

Barely a month into his first full season, the 2017 campaign was already going off the rails. Orgeron’s first conference game, a 37-7 debacle at Mississippi State, was LSU’s most lopsided loss to an unranked opponent since World War II, a wholesale collapse that confirmed just how far in over his head Orgeron was as an SEC head coach. Two weeks later, the Tigers were trounced at home by Troy, their first nonconference loss in Baton Rouge in 17 years. National outlets called it “rock bottom.” Coaches at rival programs mocked the Tigers as “soft.” Locally, the mood descended into the realm of buyout clauses, calls to fire the athletic director, and visions of impending doom.

The reality set in: Had LSU really put the fate of one of the most prestigious programs in college football in the hands of a swamp-throated d-line coach with no other suitors and a 10-25 record in his only other stint overseeing an SEC program? Had they really fired the most successful head coach in school history for this?

All of which is to say that nothing about where Orgeron finds himself today — at the helm of the No. 1 team in the nation, on the heels of a streak-busting, program-defining win at Alabama — was ever obvious. Or likely. Or frankly, from the perspective of September 2017, even plausible. Compared to rock-bottom, it barely makes sense.

Even as recently as last year the arrow seemed to be pointing in the opposite direction. It was not obvious to anyone in the spring of 2018 that Joe Burrow, a career backup fresh from losing the QB competition at Ohio State, had the potential to blossom into a record-smashing, Heisman-contending star, or even that he represented an upgrade over, say, Danny Etling. (Initially, it wasn’t obvious that he was even good enough to win the starting job at a major program: Asked at the time why he didn’t bother pursuing Burrow on the transfer market, Nebraska coach Scott Frost told CBS’ Dennis Dodd, “You think he’s better than what we got?”) It was not obvious to anyone last winter that Joe Brady, an obscure, 29-year-old assistant with the New Orleans Saints with no experience running an offense on any level, was ready to take on a prominent role in reshaping LSU’s passing game.

And it certainly wasn’t obvious that Orgeron, the epitome of an old-school, establish-the-run mindset, would give them the freedom to fulfill the vision. The last guy he hired to install a 21st Century attack, 2017 offensive coordinator Matt Canada, lasted just 1 year after Orgeron instructed him midseason to pare down his playbook to meat-and-potatoes; Orgeron conceded later that he regretted hiring Canada because their philosophies didn’t gibe. His preseason vow that LSU was committed to running a spread offense sounded like he same old thing, with the same old lesson: Believe it when you see it.

Nine games in, it’s safe to say we’ve seen enough — enough for Burrow to stake his claim as the undisputed Heisman favorite as the season hits the closing stretch, enough for Brady to command a huge new contract to keep him in Baton Rouge beyond this season, enough to put the Tigers on the fast track to the SEC Championship Game and a more-likely-than-not bid to the Playoff, and enough to move Orgeron, for now, onto the shortlist of the sport’s best coaches. He recruited the right quarterback. He hired the right assistants. He gave them the keys to install a full-throttle offense capable of outgunning LSU’s most intractable nemesis in a bona fide shootout that featured 87 points and exactly 1,100 yards of total offense.

He bet his job on evolving into the kind of team that Tigers fans have pined to see for the past decade, and it paid off. It’s paid off bigger than anyone outside of his hometown could have seen coming.

Somewhere deep in the annals of college football history, there’s probably another coach who has rebounded from as infamous a failure as Orgeron’s ill-fated run at Ole Miss from 2005-07 to achieve something vaguely resembling what Orgeron has over the past 2 years at LSU. You’d have to go way, way back. When he left Oxford 12 years ago, it was impossible to imagine another big-time program taking a chance on the guy who went 3-21 in SEC games, much less another program in the SEC West, much less a top program that expects to compete for championships regularly. Even harder to imagine him getting that kind of job was to imagine him succeeding in that mission. There’s a ways to go still to finish the job. But we don’t have to imagine it anymore.

Inside the game: LSU 46, Alabama 41

Forget the scoreboard for a second: Even dejected Bama fans have to acknowledge that this was an instant classic fully deserving of “Game of the Century” hyperbole. The atmosphere in Bryant-Denny was electric and the game itself was everything it supposed to be, right down to the closing sprint by two of the most explosive offenses in SEC history over the final quarter-and-a-half.

And yet: For an endlessly intense, entertaining game full of big plays and future pros at nearly every position playing at an incredibly high level (see the Superlatives section below), in the end the difference came down to a series of uncharacteristic unforced errors in the first half that put Alabama in a hole too deep to climb out of.

On the game’s opening series, the Tide went 63 yards in just 4 plays to set up 1st-and-goal at the LSU 8-yard line. From there, though, they stalled out, and came away empty when a clearly gimpy Tua Tagovailoa coughed the ball up, Jameis-like, on a phantom fumble:

LSU’s offense responded by taking the ball 92 yards in 6 plays for the game’s first touchdown.

On its next series, Bama stalled again in plus-territory and sent out punter Ty Perine to try to pin the Tigers near their own goal line. Instead, the Tide botched the snap …

… setting up LSU with a short field at the Alabama 40-yard line.

On the first play of the ensuing possession, an interception that would have negated the special teams gaffe was negated itself by a penalty for illegal substitution — the Tide were caught with 12 men on the field, immediately following a timeout on the change of possession. The defense still managed a stop, but not before LSU was able to move within range of a field goal to go up 10-0.

Trailing 26-13 with 26 seconds remaining in the half, Alabama declined the opportunity to limp into the locker room in favor of the opportunity for Tua to gun it from his own 29-yard line in pursuit of a quick score to trim the Tigers’ lead. It backfired immediately:

The pick was exacerbated by a late hit penalty against Alabama OL Landon Dickerson, setting up LSU’s offense at Bama’s 13-yard line. The decision did yield a quick score, when Burrow hit RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire out of the backfield for his 2nd touchdown in as many plays, extending the Tigers’ lead at the break to 20 points — the largest first-half deficit of Saban’s tenure.

The funereal mood didn’t last, but the outcome was rarely in doubt from that point on: According to ESPN, LSU’s win probability vaulted to 94.5 percent at the half and never fell below 73 percent thereafter. Tagovailoa began to heat up midway through the 3rd quarter but didn’t touch the ball again with Alabama trailing by fewer than 12 points. Averting disaster on any one of those first-half gaffes could have altered that course.

Playoff Realpolitik

Where do the Crimson Tide stand now, Playoff-wise? As we’ve seen in the past, a competitive loss to a good team in this league isn’t an automatic deal-breaker: Bama made the cut following regular-season losses in 2014, 2015, and 2017, as did Georgia in 2017. But while this year’s team might be the equal of those outfits, its path from here is not nearly as clear.

In fact, of the 11 teams still realistically alive for a Playoff slot — Alabama (8-1), Baylor (9-0), Clemson (10-0), Georgia (8-1), LSU (9-1), Minnesota (9-0), Ohio State (9-0), Oklahoma (8-1), Oregon (8-1), Penn State (8-1) and Utah (8-1) — the Tide might be in the worst position. At the very least, it’s safe to assume that several dominoes will need to fall their way over the next few weeks:

As always, the pecking order is a only a guess taking into account remaining schedules and a general sense of how the committee is likely to view each potential outcome. And as always, it necessarily makes some assumptions that might or might not pan out:

1. A 1-loss SEC or Big Ten champion will make the cut over undefeated Baylor

First of all, despite its unlikely 9-0 record, the prospect of “undefeated Baylor” remains a long shot: The Bears have yet to play a ranked opponent, will be significant underdogs this weekend against Oklahoma, and even in case of an upset against the Sooners will still have to survive Texas and the Big 12 Championship Game to make it to 13-0. ESPN’s Football Power Index places the chances of that happening at just 4.8 percent, easily the worst odds of any team in the field. Let’s not get too carried away.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s say the Bears do run the table. And let’s say they do it on the same timeline that sees Georgia upset LSU in the SEC Championship Game, punching the Bulldogs’ ticket at 12-1. If the 4th and final slot comes down to 13-0 Baylor, Big 12 champion, and 12-1 LSU, SEC runner-up, which gets the nod? My guess (again, only a guess) is that the committee will opt for the Tigers based on both their résumé and their potential for not getting run out of the stadium against another Playoff-caliber opponent. Ditto if the question involves Penn State or Ohio State.

2. Georgia can (and will) make the cut with 2 losses

The Ultimate Chaos scenario goes like this: 1) Auburn knocks off Georgia this Saturday; 2) Georgia goes on to upset LSU in the SEC Championship Game; 3) The committee is left to decide between 12-1 LSU, the 11-2 team that just beat LSU for the conference crown, and up to 3 other 1-loss conference champions for the final 2 slots.

Again, by adding a road win at Alabama as the crown jewel of an already solid résumé I’d bet on LSU earning a slot over a 1-loss champion from the Big 12 and/or Pac-12 even as a wild card. And again, by virtue of beating the consensus No. 1 team to win the most respected conference, I’d bet on Georgia vaulting back into the top 4 as well, even with 2 losses.

Am I confident in those bets? Not in the least, and in this specific scenario it’s impossible to be. But if it comes to that no one will be able to argue that the Tigers and Bulldogs don’t have the most impressive set of wins.

3. Alabama’s schedule is an albatross

For at least a few more weeks, Bama should remain in good position in the committee’s weekly Top 25. They’ll almost certainly be the top 1-loss team for the time being; it would be a shock to see them drop out of the top 4 this week, and it’s not entirely out of the question for them to remain ahead of Clemson at No. 3. But that edge is likely to be short-lived: If the other 1-loss teams keep winning, they have a better chance to leap Alabama than Alabama has of fending them off.

That has nothing to do with Alabama as a team and everything to do with the fact that it has nothing remotely resembling a quality win by Playoff standards. LSU was Bama’s big chance to render the questions about its otherwise lackluster schedule irrelevant. Now? The questions are very, very relevant.

Strength of schedule is not an absolute deal-breaker. There is still Auburn, which (assuming an Alabama win in the Iron Bowl) will go down as the best entry on Alabama’s résumé. And there’s always a chance the committee will ignore résumés altogether and just anoint the Tide based on the “eye test,” as it essentially did 2 years ago. Without a shot at the SEC East champ, though, they’re going be stuck at home watching while all of their rivals for the final slot make their best case in their respective conference championship games. If some combination of Baylor, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, and/or Utah hasn’t leapt them by then, either chaos has struck in a big way or the committee is only waiting to see the competition clear the final hurdle.

Bama fans can make whatever arguments they like about advanced stats, point spreads, and the inherent superiority of the current team, all of which are valid. They should be rooting for chaos.

Arkansas had no other choice. Does it have a chance?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Chad Morris era in Fayetteville is officially over less than 2 years after it began. It has to be real bad to justify cutting your losses (not to mention paying a $10 million buyout) after just 22 games, and it was: Morris goes out with an incredible 0-14 record in SEC play on top of nonconference losses vs. Colorado State, North Texas, San Jose State and now WKU. That’s the worst 2-year run at Arkansas since at least World War II.

With a record like that, Morris was likely on his way out regardless of what happened against the Hilltoppers. But the loss was an instructive glimpse into the abyss: Not only were the Razorbacks blown out at home by a middle-of-the-road outfit from Conference USA — the winning quarterback was former Arkansas QB Ty Storey, who struggled as the Razorbacks’ primary starter in 2018 before being shown the door last winter to make way for a grad transfer. Morris brought in 2 transfers to compete for the job, in fact, both of whom watched from the bench Saturday as their predecessor carried the day and their own offense continued to flail in the hands of a pair of freshmen.

Obviously, Morris’ time had come. But Arkansas has much bigger issues to resolve as a program than salvaging a recruiting class, beginning with the biggest: What are realistic expectations in the SEC West? Morris fell well short, but so did Bret Bielema, who arrived as an established winner in 2012 and left 5 years later with an 11-29 record in conference play. The Hogs’ only 2 coaches with winning overall records in the SEC era, Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino, both left under dubious circumstances.

Whoever agrees to take over the dysfunctional culture left by Morris has to have confidence that he’ll have enough time to rebuild it from the ground up — a full recruiting cycle, at least — before he can be judged on wins and losses. It can’t get any worse, but getting back to par in the best-resourced division in college football is going to involve a lot of patience and a lot more losing before it gets appreciably better.


The best of the week.

1. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU

I’ve never devoted an entire section of Superlatives to a single game, but that will be the case this week because Bama-LSU was that kind of game. And there was never a moment’s doubt who would be taking top honors because Burrow is that kind of player. If zeitgeist-y magazine covers were still a thing, this week’s issue would be his “Hand Him the Heisman” moment.

As brilliant as he was with his arm — 31-of-39, 383 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 INTs is arguably the best high-volume stat line anyone has managed against a Saban-era Alabama defense, which is saying something — in crunch time Burrow also made 2 critical plays with his legs that kept LSU a step ahead of the Tide’s second-half surge.

One: Up 33-27 with under 11 minutes to go, facing 3rd-and-5 from the Alabama 20, Burrow tucked and ran for 15 yards on a called QB draw, setting up 1st-and-goal; Clyde Edwards-Helaire spun his way into the end zone on the next play (see below) to push the Tigers’ lead to 39-27.

Two: Up 39-34 with just over 2 minutes to go, facing 3rd-and-2 from the Alabama 25, Burrow rushed the offense to the line, caught Bama completely off-guard by pulling the ball on a zone read, and rumbled inside the 10-yard for what amounted to a game-clinching, 18-yard gain. Again, Edwards-Helaire punctuated the conversion by powering it in on the next play, extending the lead back to 12 points.

In all, Burrow ran for 96 yards (not including negative yardage on sacks) on more than 10 yards per carry. Adding that dimension to the most lethal downfield attack in the college game is almost unfair, and is going to be almost impossible to stop.

2. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU / Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

The quarterbacks stole the show, as expected. But a big part of what elevated the game to Hall-of-Fame status was that it still felt fundamentally like the kind of hardcore slugfest Bama-LSU is known for — only one where, for once, the offenses got the better of the slugging. Edwards-Helaire (180 total yards, 3 TDs on 29 touches) and Harris (190 total yards, 2 TDs on 22 touches) both turned in a career day that transcended the box score.

For his part, Harris was the lynchpin of Alabama’s rally in the 3rd quarter: With LSU rolling and Tagovailoa clearly feeling his gimpy ankle, the Tide clawed their way back on a pair of extended touchdown drives covering 95 and 78 yards, respectively, on which Harris personally accounted for 124 yards and both scores.

The stretch run, meanwhile, was a showcase for Edwards-Helaire, a hard-trucking, 5-8 ball of energy who repeatedly willed his way across the relevant lines to gain when LSU needed them the most. At various points in the 4th quarter, he …

1) Plucked a low pass off his ankles and proceeded to carry a future 1st-round draft pick, Trevon Diggs, across the sticks for a must-have conversion on 3rd-and-10:

2) Spun his way past another 1st-round prospect, Xavier McKinney, for the Tigers’ first points of the second half:

3) Blasted his way through both McKinney and Diggs en route to another score with the clock ticking under 2 minutes:

4) Put the last nail in the coffin a few moments later by dragging half the Bama defense for a 1st down despite taking on the first tackler a full 7 yards shy of the mark:

Is he a serious breakaway threat in the open field? No. Would I want any piece of him as a tackler once he gets there? Also no. His overall numbers don’t necessarily reflect it, but over the past month, Edwards-Helaire is playing as well as any back in the country.

3. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

Tua visibly struggled on his bad ankle, committed 2 horrendous turnovers, completed barely 50 percent of his passes … and still more than held up his end of the shootout with 418 yards and 4 touchdowns on 10.5 yards per attempt. Whatever the early miscues cost them, the Tide would never have stood a chance without him.

Haymakers notwithstanding, Tagovailoa’s best drive of the day came on Bama’s only full possession of the 4th quarter, which began with a sack for 9-yard loss on the first play. From that point on, Tua connected on big-league throws to convert 3rd-and-19 (a 26-yard gain to Henry Ruggs III), 3rd-and-1 (a 21-yarder to DeVonta Smith), 4th-and-4 (9 yards to Smith), and finally 4th-and-2 from the LSU 5-yard line, on a pinpoint opposite-hash throw to Jerry Jeudy in the front corner of the end zone:

At that point, everyone in the stadium understood that if Bama’s defense could manage just one more stop that Tua was going to deliver; thanks mainly to Burrow and Edwards-Helaire, that chance never came. Ultimately Tagovailoa was better at 80 percent than the vast majority of college quarterbacks at full strength. This time, like in last January’s National Championship Game, he just happened to run up against one of the few exceptions.

4. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU / DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

Chase and Smith came in as the SEC’s most productive receivers in terms of yards per game and more than lived up to the hype, combing for 353 yards and 3 TDs on 13 receptions — 8 of which gained at least 20 yards. (Smith finished with 7 catches for 213 yards and 2 TDs.) In this case, being the best wideouts on the field pretty much automatically makes you the best in the country.

Smith, especially, was a big-play magnet opposite LSU’s celebrated freshman corner, Derek Stingley Jr., repeatedly burning the rookie for 64 yards in the first half …

… 32 yards in the 3rd quarter, the biggest play of Bama’s “not dead yet” touchdown drive …

… and 85 yards in the 4th, briefly extending the Tide’s hopes in the dying seconds:

Against almost anyone else, leaving Stingley on an island is never a bad idea, even in an obvious prevent situation. Against Alabama, the entire game is an obvious prevent situation.

5. K’Lavon Chaisson, LB, LSU / Xavier McKinney, DB, Alabama

How much is there to say about the defenses in the highest-scoring game in Bama-LSU history? A lot, actually, because between them both defenses made plays: 3 takeaways, 6 sacks, even 7 forced punts, if you can believe that. Part of what made the offensive heroics so … well, heroic, is that they were so obviously hard-earned.

Chaisson is LSU’s rep after recording 10 total tackles and 3.5 TFLs, both career highs. For Alabama, McKinney was everywhere: Although he missed a couple of key tackles late, altogether he led all tacklers for the game with 13 — including 2 of the Tide’s 5 sacks — and forced the Tigers’ only turnover courtesy of a blindside hit on Burrow early in the second half. (Bama’s offense failed to capitalize, a significant missed opportunity in a game the Tide still trailed at that point by 3 touchdowns.) McKinney also blocked an extra point in the first half, offsetting the inevitable Bama miss a few minutes later.

Honorable Mention: Alabama LBs Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings, who make their weekly appearance after combining for 15 tackles, 2 sacks (both by Jennings) and 4 QB hurries. … Alabama WR/PR Jaylen Waddle, for one of the most spectacular punt returns of this or any season. … South Carolina LBs Ernest Jones and Sherrod Greene, who combined for 17 tackles, 5 TFLs, and an interception in the course of holding Appalachian State to just 202 total yards. … Tennessee LB Daniel Bituli, who racked up a career-high 19 tackles in the Vols’ come-from-behind, 17-13 win at Kentucky. … Tennessee DB Nigel Warrior, who had 8 tackles and a momentum-shifting pick. … Florida LB James Houston IV, who was credited with 8 tackles, 2 TFLs, and a QB hurry in the Gators’ 56-0 beatdown of Vanderbilt. … Florida DB Donovan Stiner, who came down with 2 interceptions against the Commodores, both setting up short-field touchdowns for the UF offense. … Georgia DB Richard LeCounte, who headlined the Bulldogs’ shutout win over Missouri with 4 tackles (1 for loss) and an interception. … Missouri LB Nick Bolton, who had a team-high 9 tackles with 2 TFLs (including a sack) in a losing effort. … Ole Miss QB John Rhys Plumlee, who accounted for 301 total yards and 2 rushing TDs in the Rebels’ 41-3 romp over New Mexico State. … And Arkansas RB Rakeem Boyd, once again the lone bright spot on a dismal day for the Razorbacks with a pair of touchdown runs covering 76 yards and 86 yards, respectively.

* * * * * *

The scoring system for the Superlatives standings has been slightly revised: Beginning this week, I’m awarding 8 points for the week’s top player, 6 for second, 5 for third, 4 for fourth, 3 for fifth, and 1 for honorable mention because how honorable is it really if it doesn’t come with any points? Season totals have been adjusted accordingly.