This LSU-Texas game is stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with weighty implications, basting in juicy subplots.
Maybe that just happens to be this year. Or maybe this is what happens when two programs that fancy themselves college football powers from shoulder-rubbing states only meet twice in a 65-year span.
Whatever it is, Saturday’s game in Austin has got it all. Top-10 rankings. College Football Playoff implications. A prime-time TV spot on ABC. Recruiting impacts past, present and future. DBU versus DB-Who? Mesquite barbecue pitted against cochon de lait. Lee Corso and his traveling mascot headgear menagerie, putting a big curse on either the Tigers or Longhorns at the climax of Saturday morning’s “College GameDay” show.
And, last but certainly not least, the coaches and the intertwined destinies that will be at the center of this nationally spotlighted stage.
Texas got Tom Herman to be its coach in 2016. LSU kept Ed Orgeron, who overwhelmed his critics in his harder-than-it-looked 6-2 turn as the Tigers’ interim coach that season. The debate has raged since which school got it more right.
People decide about people from the outset and often little will shift that thinking.
Herman, popular opinion decreed, was a rising star from his days as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State, recruiting LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (Tom calls him Joey) to Columbus before he took off for his first Conquer The World stop at Houston. Orgeron, everyone figured, was going to flame out at LSU like he did in three woebegone years at Ole Miss, when his Rebels managed to win just 10 games.
The flame still burns brightly for Orgeron at LSU. He put himself in the conversation in 2013 with a 6-2 interim coaching stint to be the permanent coach at Southern California after Lane Kiffin got the early season boot a la Les Miles. Those Ole Miss years left a permanent stain on his record, but Orgeron is 32-11 since then, a respectable .744 winning percentage. He learned he couldn’t do it all and took less pay to surround himself with a staff that could help him win, guys like defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and new passing-game coordinator Joe Brady (Tom Herman 2.0?).
LSU looked like the loser when Herman went west instead of east from Houston that year. Like it was settling, even though then athletic director Joe Alleva always maintained Orgeron was his choice. Herman was the new-age coach who kissed his players. Orgeron was old school, like someone from mythical South Central Louisiana State in “The Waterboy.”
In this still embryonic 2019 season, this will be looked upon as a statement game for both teams. Both programs. The winner will be catapulted right into the thick of the CFP conversation. For Texas, the next defining moment won’t come until Oct. 12 when it plays Oklahoma in Dallas. If LSU wins, the Tigers will be a big favorite to show up Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa with an 8-0 record.
It will be looked upon as a referendum on both coaches, too. “The winning school got it right. The losing school didn’t.”
Maybe both schools got it right. For them. A lot of people will tell you Herman would have come to LSU had the Texas job not opened up, but I’m hardly convinced he would have stayed long term. He’s called Texas his dream job, something I don’t know Herman would ever have said about LSU with a straight face.
Orgeron, 58 years old and 14 years Herman’s senior, said in a scene in “The Blind Side” that Ole Miss was his dream job. That was a line in a movie. For all his three decades of criss-crossing the country from one job to the next, this is Orgeron’s true dream job. You could say, his destiny.
Senior defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence remembers that mad Thanksgiving weekend in 2016 when LSU was playing at Texas A&M and the rumors about Orgeron and Herman (and Jimbo Fisher, who was out of the picture at that point) were swirling.
“We couldn’t control it,” Lawrence said. “Whatever they did, we’d still be here.”
But he and a lot of players wanted Orgeron to get the job.
“We like our coach,” he said. “We like him a lot. We’re going to follow him. He’s going to lead us where we want to be. We’re definitely on the right track now.”
They’re scheduled to play twice in the next year, with Texas coming to Tiger Stadium next September. If the trajectories of the programs continue at their current pace, it isn’t an outlandish thought to imagine that one day soon the Tigers and Longhorns may serve as each other’s roadblocks to the College Football Playoff national championship, the way Clemson and Alabama have done so repetitively the past few seasons.
In the long-, long-term view, it may be in LSU’s best interests for Texas to become a great program under Herman again. Sure, it could make it tougher for the Tigers to haul in prospects from the Lone Star State, one of LSU’s favorite fishing grounds for recruits. But LSU has to deal with Texas A&M every year. It seems over the years Texas and Texas A&M have had a hard time being dominant at the same time. And Texas still casts a longer shadow in its home state than A&M, a program that won its only national championship 80 years ago.
Maybe this game won’t be the final word about LSU and Orgeron, Texas and Herman.
Maybe they’re just getting started.