A duck, Mick Jagger and Ed Orgeron walk into a bar.
The first two go unnoticed. (This actually happened to Jagger last week in Charlotte, North Carolina.) But the bartender takes one look at the troubles worked into the lines on Orgeron’s face, and he says knowingly: “You look like you could use a Bluegrass Miracle.”
Somewhere in Kentucky, the bourbon capital of the world, there probably is a drink named after one of the most famous plays in LSU football history. The desperation heave that in 2002 flew off Marcus Randall’s right hand, pingponged through the mitts of two Kentucky defensive backs and into the waiting grasp of Devery Henderson for a totally improbable 75-yard pass to stun the Wildcats 33-30. A play that started with just :02 left on the clock.
“Fifty-nine minutes and 58 seconds,” a bemused Kentucky fan told me as he watched the LSU buses leave Commonwealth Stadium that day. “I knew it was too good to be true.”
Commonwealth Stadium is called Kroger Field now. The grocery giant bought the naming rights four years ago. It’s there LSU will go shopping for a win to turn its season around. It's where Orgeron probably would be willing to part with a sizable chunk of his $9 million salary to turn around his tenure.
Three weeks before LSU hired its new offensive coordinator, Mark Stoops did the same thing at Kentucky.
After taking the Tigers to the top of the college football mountain with the 2019 national championship, it’s been a slippery slide down the opposite slope for Orgeron and LSU since. A 5-5 record last year — after a slew of naturally occurring and early departures for the NFL, plus a string of pandemic-triggered opt-outs — could have been written off as an anomaly.
This season’s 3-2 start, with a three-game winning streak bookended by tough losses at UCLA and to Auburn, looks like further disintegration. Not that a 3-2 start is completely horrible. But five of the Tigers’ final seven opponents, including the No. 16 Wildcats (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference), are ranked.
This will be a daunting task, and the conventional over/under is that Orgeron needs to go 8-4 or better to retain his high-profile, high-salary, high-stress job. That means a 5-2 finish for the Tigers, who just added to their lengthy list of key injured players. Star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is out for the foreseeable future (next stop: NFL), and starting safety Major Burns will miss Saturday's game.
This game, like Auburn before it, looks like a must-win for the increasingly embattled Coach O. His body language — at least through the reductive window of video teleconferences (LSU hasn’t allowed in-person interviews, except for SEC media days) — suggests he knows the grim task he’s facing.
Still, part of him remains upbeat. Say what you will about Orgeron, and so much has been said in recent days, but the guy is resilient.
He is 48-16 at LSU with a 15-1 record after a loss. His only back-to-back defeats came last season at Texas A&M and against Alabama.
A look at The Advocate's SEC power rankings going into another weekend of play:
The man who made “flip the script” his catchphrase when he went from interim to full-time coach in 2016 is looking to flip the script of an unhappy ending that so many have written for him. That starts with a win Saturday night in Lexington.
He believes. He has to. One supposes there is no other way to confront the challenges he’s facing without being optimistic.
Asked Wednesday whether he thinks the Tigers can reverse their fortunes, Orgeron replied: “I always do. We’ve done it before. We have to believe in our team and block out the noise.
“There’s a lot of noise out there. But we can handle it. We just have to go play Kentucky and win this game. That’s all we can do.”
If Kentucky had gone 8-7 over its past 15 games, most Wildcats fans would shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, they tried. Now it’s basketball season.”
But LSU going 8-7 over the past two years is something — as former Tiger and current ESPN analyst Booger McFarland might say — approaching Defcon 1 around here.
It isn’t just that LSU is losing. It’s the way the Tigers are losing. Traditionally, if all else failed, LSU could at least run the ball and play defense. In 2020, its defense was the worst in school history. Now the defense is improved, but the running game is cursed. Ranked 128th out of 130 FBS teams averaging 70.6 yards per game, LSU is on pace to have the worst rushing offense in school history, according to record keeping that dates to 1938 (1999 was the worst at 82.5 ypg).
In short, being a coach who is losing almost half his games the past two years is one thing. Losing the identity of the program is another.
Add Orgeron’s “sissy blue shirt” comment at UCLA — or the episode on his radio show Wednesday night, when some buffoon called to prank Orgeron, and the coach replied with a joke that didn't exactly land — and you have a Titanic that’s hard to pivot around the iceberg.
Winning cures everything, of course. If LSU can right the ship and piece together another three-game winning streak against Kentucky, Florida and Ole Miss going into the pre-Bama open date, the heat will turn down to a low simmer. Winning inoculates Orgeron from all manner of ills.
Much is still possible for Coach O and LSU this season, good and bad. But to remain at LSU, he may need a latter-day Bluegrass Miracle.