When the last few grains of sand ran out on LSU’s 24-10 loss Saturday at Alabama, it became time for coach Ed Orgeron to make a value judgment about the immediate and long-term future of his team.
Does he stick with Danny Etling, a tough, veteran, but physically limited quarterback, the rest of this season? Or does he say the future starts now and decide to give the starts and majority of playing time to freshman Myles Brennan, a near lock to be LSU’s starter in 2018 but for now nearly as green as the grass in Tiger Stadium?
Orgeron’s answer Monday was definitive and hardly surprising.
“Danny is our starting quarterback,” Orgeron said, “and Danny's done a good job for us. We're going to finish the season. Myles would have to beat Danny out on a play-by-play basis in practice. He'd have to play better than he would in a game. He hasn't done that yet."
There was more.
“I would not give Myles the starting quarterback job just to get ready for next year,” Coach O said. “We've got a lot of things to play for. We're thinking one game at a time, and we want to have a very good year. For right now, Danny's our quarterback.”
On Sunday night, Christian LaCouture set his phone alarm for 6:30 a.m. Monday.
That last bit of equivocation on Orgeron’s part shouldn’t cast doubt on Coach O's convictions, or fan fresh speculation about Brennan taking the first snap of any of LSU’s remaining games: at home Saturday against Arkansas (11 a.m., ESPN) at Tennessee, home against Texas A&M or LSU’s bowl game. Unless Etling has a major collapse, or of course an injury, Brennan is Plan B.
A candid-but-subdued Etling was asked if he considered Orgeron’s words a vote of confidence.
“If coach is putting me out there, he has faith in me,” Etling said.
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If it were it me, I’d go with Brennan and take my potential lumps in these final four games. He can use all the experience he can get in advance of being a starter in the SEC. Say what you want about the conference being down this year — and it is — but talent-wise, it’s still only a notch or two below the NFC South.
Understandably, however, that’s not how Orgeron thinks. That’s not how any coach thinks. They think about what — and who — will help them win this week. They don’t project forward to next season, because next season isn’t promised to anyone. In the increasingly volatile world of college coach hirings and firings, that’s truer than ever.
LSU lost to Alabama largely not because of a talent deficit on the offensive and defensive lines but because Jalen Hurts was a more talented quarterback than Etling. They had similar passing numbers — Etling was 12 of 26 for 137 yards with an interception, Hurts was 11 of 24 for 183 yards and a touchdown. But Hurts’ ability to extend and make plays with his feet and his arm strength turned the game in Alabama’s favor.
LSU could play against a talented quarterback again this weekend in Arkansas’ Cole Kelley or Austin Allen, but the surrounding cast isn’t quite on the same level as Alabama’s. Quarterback play will be important the rest of the way for LSU but not the be-all, end-all.
Though he obviously wouldn’t say it, this is Orgeron’s vision of what lies ahead for his team: three regular-season Southeastern Conference victories against teams with a combined SEC record of 4-12, games in which his Tigers will be a significant favorite. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) pegs LSU’s chances of winning at 88 percent against Arkansas, 72 percent at Tennessee and 77 percent against A&M.
LSU practiced Monday again without left tackle KJ Malone.
Win those games and LSU is 9-3 for the season and 6-2 in the SEC, which would be the Tigers’ best conference record since 2012. Win those games and you’re sunning yourself at one of the SEC’s better bowl addresses — maybe (but unlikely) the Citrus again, perhaps the Outback or TaxSlayer — with a chance at the program’s first 10-win season since 2013.
“I think there’s still a lot to play for this year,” Etling said. “We can still have a pretty successful season and still get a lot of wins, still make a pretty big bowl game and finish high in the SEC rankings. That’s something this team can work toward and have a goal to play for.”
Start Brennan and the goals are still there, but the risk goes up significantly. Risk management is a major, though unstated, part of Orgeron’s job. Imagine the low risk, high reward for Coach O if LSU wins out. It would bank Orgeron a year of future job security.
Orgeron should at least consider getting Brennan some snaps when the game is still on the line, but he downplayed the possibility of even doing that.
“He could play more,” Coach O said. “But he would play more because he is equal or better to Danny; that's the reason he'd play. If Danny's in there, and he's hot and playing well, he's our quarterback.
“We're playing to win.”
And playing to win now. Orgeron and LSU will deal with 2018 when it gets here.