Taking stock of LSU football is rarely an exercise in simplicity.
The 2017 Tigers were not terrible, but they were not great. They had some really awful losses (Mississippi State, Troy), but they had a truly remarkable win, coming back from 20 points down to beat Auburn 27-23.
And just winning six of their final seven regular-season games was a remarkable achievement by any standard, considering how much the program looked in disarray as the calendar turned to October.
Ed Orgeron deserves a lot of credit for holding his team together, and his team deserves credit for keeping the faith and not falling apart when it looked dubious that the Tigers could even make a bowl.
But make a bowl they did, a second straight trip to the Citrus Bowl. A frustrating 21-17 loss to Notre Dame was the result, leaving LSU’s season at 9-4 overall and the program facing two possibilities going forward:
1. LSU football continues to be in a state of flux, with its fortunes turning up or down in the seasons to come.
2. This is the new normal.
That LSU went 6-2 in Southeastern Conference play for the first time since 2012 was another noteworthy benchmark. But by losing to Notre Dame, the Tigers missed out on their first 10-win season since 2013.
The 2013 season marks the line between what LSU football was and what it now is.
From 2010-13, LSU went 44-9, an .830 winning percentage, with an SEC championship and a loss in the BCS championship game. From 2014-17, LSU has gone 34-16, a .680 winning percentage, with no CFP bowl appearances and no trips to the SEC Championship Game. Still, the Citrus Bowl is the SEC’s top non-CFP bowl, and getting there two years in a row speaks to some measure of success.
LSU has won at least eight games for 18 straight seasons, a remarkable level of consistency that programs like the four in this year’s CFP semifinals — Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson — can’t claim. But LSU will finish outside the top 10 in the final Associated Press poll for the sixth straight year.
And, more disturbingly for the Tigers, for the first time since 2000, LSU failed to crack the AP top 10 at any point in the season other than the 2016 preseason poll, when the Tigers started at No. 5. LSU peaked at No. 12 this season after beating BYU 27-0 in the opener.
Clearly, an achievement gap has developed between LSU and the programs it considers to be peers.
The observation this columnist made in the preseason regarding LSU football still stands: LSU’s program hasn’t or doesn’t appear to be in imminent danger of falling off a cliff — but by the lofty standards of its achievements and expectations, LSU has been, and remains, a second-rate college football power.
You could say LSU has done fairly well the past couple years, considering the degree of uncertainty permeating the program, or in spite of it.
A three-game November losing streak put Les Miles within an inch of losing his job at the end of the 2015 season, a rug that did get pulled out from under him after a loss at Auburn the following September. Orgeron righted the ship then, too, with a respectable 6-2 run that only included losses to SEC Championship Game participants Alabama and Florida.
But the uncertainty has persisted this season with Orgeron’s reportedly sour relationship with offensive coordinator Matt Canada. If LSU cuts Canada loose — something that’s expected to happen as early as this week — it will be on the hook for a $3 million buyout.
Though it’s a head coach’s prerogative to have who he wants on his staff, even more than the money will be the impression that LSU is a program still trying to figure out its offensive identity.
The 2018 season promises little more at this point than a tough, tough road. The Tigers are likely to lose 11 seniors or draft-eligible junior starters and major contributors, seven of them on offense. And the schedule has to be one of the nation’s toughest, with four games against CFP bowl teams: Miami in Arlington, Texas; at Auburn; Georgia; and Alabama.
In other words, things could get worse in the short term for LSU before they have a chance to get better.
It’s fair to say confidence in Orgeron remains in question. LSU fans can at least bundle themselves up in the thought that he knows there are issues and what he needs to win more. The Tigers' lineman-heavy early signing class is evidence of that. And Orgeron apparently wants a pro-style offense, the kind he doesn’t seem to believe Canada can provide.
Identifying the problems, or what Orgeron perceives as problems, are the basis for a solution. Now he and LSU have to prove they have the long-term answers to lift the program from good back to great.