PASADENA, Calif. — Throughout the busy, bumpy months leading up to this LSU football season, the storylines were numerous. And urgent.
Who would win the quarterback battle between Myles Brennan and Max Johnson? Would the defense improve under new coordinator Daronte Jones? Would the new offensive coaches Jake Peets and DJ Mangas be able to bring back something that resembled the white hot 2019 LSU offense? And most of all, would an LSU team laden with talent and veterans be able to rebound from a disappointing and often dismal 2020 season and be a contender again?
But after Saturday night’s 38-27 loss at UCLA, a loss in which many key problems looked unchanged from last season, there is but one story now:
Is Ed Orgeron’s job in jeopardy?
When you’re the coach at LSU, you’re never more than one bad season, or even a mediocre one, from being in serious trouble. Ask Mike Archer and Gerry DiNardo, who had two and three winning seasons, respectively, then two losing ones, and were gone. Ask Jerry Stovall and Les Miles, whose rope was even shorter than that.
LSU went 15-6 under Orgeron his first two seasons. It went 25-3 under Coach O in the next two with a guy named Joe Burrow behind center. The Tigers are 5-6 since that glorious championship night in January 2020 when LSU beat Clemson for the CFP national championship.
Right now, it doesn’t look like LSU could get close to another national championship game without buying a ticket.
Every concern, it seemed, that dogged LSU throughout August materialized in painful reality on the floor of the Rose Bowl. The Tigers’ offensive line, veterans all, got pushed around. There was no running game to speak of (LSU had 48 net yards rushing) until briefly LSU went with a third tackle to start the second half. Meanwhile, Johnson was ping-ponged around the pocket by UCLA’s blitzes. LSU’s defense had its moments, but far too many breakdowns with open receivers and running backs running free. The Bruins had 15 plays that gained 10 or more yards, seven of those going for 20 or more.
Despite changing defensive coordinators, the Tigers far too often don’t look like they’ve ever seen a crossing route and too often don’t speak the same language in trying to counter the other team’s routes and formations.
There are other issues. Running back John Emery, receiver Jontre Kirklin and defensive end Soni Fonua all missed the game because of academic issues. Academic issues in Week 1? The Fox broadcast crew revealed that promising linebacker Jared Small, who would have started against UCLA, is out for the season with a knee injury. And it will be weeks before there’s even a chance Brennan will be recovered from his broken arm and defensive tackle Glen Logan will be recovered enough from his broken foot to make a difference.
By then the season may already be lost, if it isn’t already.
Orgeron said after the game the loss is on him and that his staff will get things fixed. Noble sentiments, perhaps, but perhaps too late. Once the games begin, it’s tough to make meaningful, season-altering changes. Changes that should have taken root in August. Peetz could remember to call some outside runs to take advantage of his offense’s speed and Jones could dial up some blitzes that seemed in short supply Saturday. But as was asked Saturday morning on ESPN’s “College Game Day” show, the broader question is whether 2020 was an aberration or a sign of some bigger issues within the LSU program.
Indications currently point to the latter. And another big question looming out there now: was Burrow to Orgeron what Cam Newton was to former Auburn coach Gene Chizik? Chizik, you may recall, was out at Auburn two years after Newton led those Tigers to the national championship.
After his Hurricanes got pasted earlier Saturday 44-13 by Alabama, Miami Hurricanes coach Manny Diaz said: “College football is famous for its overreactions after Week 1. We don’t get our story written one game into the season.”
There is definitely a ring of truth to what Diaz said. One of the things we love about college football is its unpredictability, but we persist in trying to decide how the season will turn out from the slimmest of sample sizes.
Still, you don’t have to be an All-American football talent to know that LSU’s 2020 season was defined by the Tigers’ defenseless season-opening loss to Mississippi State. It could well be that way again. On “College Game Day” Saturday, Kirk Herbstreit said LSU was the team in the biggest must-win situation of any playing in Week 1.
“If they lose today then they lose the team like they (lost) ‘em last year,” he said.
The next two weeks it’s almost impossible to think that LSU will lose. McNeese State, which comes to Tiger Stadium on Saturday, lost its opener to Division II West Florida, 42-36. Central Michigan, which comes to Baton Rouge on Sept. 18, lost 34-24 to Missouri on Saturday and will also be a big underdog.
Week 4. At Mississippi State on Sept. 25. Circle the date in red. The Tigers have until then to get their act together. To reverse the dismal course that looks as though it’s been set once again.
Maybe Orgeron, his staff, the Tigers, can right the ship.
Until and if they do, his future is now the story of this season.