It isn’t lost on Ed Orgeron that the LSU Tigers — for the first time, full time, his LSU Tigers — ended up starting their season where anyone in college football would like to be when the new year begins.
Disaster forced LSU and BYU out of Houston to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Destiny, he and his team and LSU’s legions of ever-demanding fans fervently wish, will bring them back for the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 and one of the CFP national semifinals.
The Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl, actually. Either works, and Orgeron has ties in Southern California, too. It’s where he once hoped a successful interim coaching stint would lead to a permament job as the man leading the Trojans’ storied program.
The sun virtually never sets on all the places Orgeron has coached during his successful career, but again it was destiny that guided him home. To his home state’s flagship program, except for a few pockets of dissent here and there, Louisiana’s pride and joy from the mouth of the Mississippi to the ArkLaTex corner.
But in the final hours before LSU’s 2017 season finally begins, Orgeron isn’t thinking about all that. He’s thinking about beating BYU and getting the season started the right way. The way last season didn’t start, resulting in Les Miles getting fired and Coach O getting a chance to prove himself worthy of his true dream job.
“Obviously we always want to end up with a great season at LSU,” Orgeron said. “Be in a great bowl, be in the national championship hunt. But that isn’t what we talk about on a daily basis. We talk about the process.
“We have to climb that ladder one step at a time. We can’t miss that first step.”
When he got a crack at that first full-time head coaching job at Ole Miss, Orgeron made the mistake of overreaching. He tried to over-motivate, over-coach, overly put his handprints on parts of the program, like offense, that really weren’t his expertise.
Orgeron realized this time it would be different. His imprint is on the program, yes, from different designations for practice days each week to an interlocking version of LSU’s “Geaux font” logo he requested to connote team unity.
Everyone has an ego, but if Orgeron’s isn’t in check, it’s at least in eclipse. For the first time since LSU has published a media guide dating back to the late 1950s, the new coach isn’t on the cover. Perhaps that’s because Coach O isn’t entirely new, having coached the Tigers to a 6-2 record last season. Perhaps it’s his desire to submerge himself into the team culture that has become pervasive: One team, one heartbeat. The new LSU mantra is inescapable and infectious. Much like Orgeron’s outsized personality itself.
“It’ll never be about me,” he said. “It’s about the team.”
Perhaps part of the reason Orgeron has been so intent on emphasizing teamwork and unity is he knows succeeding at LSU will take more than just the force of his considerable will to restore the program from its current place on the fringes of national prominence to center stage. He’s made laudable staff hires and turned a deaf ear to criticism that LSU shouldn’t be trying to limit out-of-state schools from participating in in-state satellite summer camps.
His job is to win at LSU. Every game. Everything else is secondary.
How many games Orgeron’s first full LSU team can win now comes into sharp focus. The Tigers’ preseason No. 13 ranking symbolizes both respect and uncertainty. New offense. No Leonard Fournette. Critical losses on defense. An alarming lack of depth along the lines. There are no gaping holes but enough small fissures to allow four or even five regular-season losses to punch through if the Tigers aren’t up to the task.
But if everything goes right — if LSU takes to the new offense, if the defense is close to being as stingy as it was in 2016, if Danny Etling can be that healthy field general, if Derrius Guice can leave no one pining for Fournette, LSU again has the ability and audaciousness to beat anyone on its schedule. Yes, even that Crimson-clad bunch in Tuscaloosa — if the wind is right.
Expecting too much probably isn’t the best recipe for satisfaction in 2017, and the truth of LSU’s season will probably lie somewhere between scraping into a bowl or marching into the CFP semifinals. It’s reasonable to think the Tigers could be in one of the non-semifinal New Year’s Six bowls, a fine rally point for the future.
Orgeron and LSU’s future is now here, completely intertwined. And he’s intent on putting a sure foot on that first step up the ladder that Tigers everywhere hope will carry them to the heights.