The most talked about LSU player wasn't even at SEC Media Days

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference media days at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/John Amis)

HOOVER, Ala. — A year ago in Atlanta, it was as though you could see the end of the Ed Orgeron era at LSU from Southeastern Conference media days.

Orgeron went a respectable 15-6 in his first season-plus as LSU’s coach, including a 6-2 stint as interim coach in 2016. But the memory of his woeful three-year tenure at Ole Miss, plus the permanent stain of that 2017 loss to Troy, were anchors dragging his reputation down. A writer for Athlon pegged LSU to go 7-5 in 2018, and ranked Orgeron only the 10th-best coach in the SEC. And that was more than enough to conjure up the image of a pile of kindling under Orgeron’s seat, especially with games against highly regarded Miami and Auburn in LSU’s first three.

“Should LSU lose both of those,” SEC Network pundit Paul Finebaum asked last summer, “can you even get a thermometer to measure the hot seat?”

Cool your jets, everyone, Coach O seemed to say. LSU throttled an overrated Miami team in the opener 33-17. It pulled out a 50-50 game at Auburn, 22-21. Two huge wins that propelled LSU to a 10-3 record capped by the Tigers’ 40-32 Fiesta Bowl win over UCF that left LSU with a No. 6 final ranking, its best since the 2011 season.

The word for Orgeron a year ago as he took the podium at media days was “precarious.” The word as he and LSU players Joe Burrow, Grant Delipt and Lloyd Cushenberry arrive here Monday for the first day of the SEC’s annual media mosh pit is “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Oh what a difference a few key weeks make.

In just over seven months, LSU has gone from its coach on a hot seat to just being hot. A likely preseason top-10 pick. A trendy choice to be a contender for the program’s first College Football Playoff berth. A program coming off a top-five recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com and now vying with Alabama for the No. 2 class behind reigning national champ Clemson (the only thing separating LSU and Bama is the Tigers have one more three-star commitment and Bama has one more four-star) as Orgeron pitches the LSU brand to swayed commitments from sea to shining sea.

It reminds me a bit of the 1980s, when the rest of America “discovered” Cajun cooking (saw crawfish etouffee on the menu at a restaurant here this weekend — no thanks). Suddenly, LSU football is back in fashion.

And who is leading the charge? Oh Ed, you fashion plate, you. Compared to last season, which everyone figured the Tigers would struggle to nudge over .500 with all the questions on offense and of Orgeron’s leadership itself, now the mindset is that LSU is about to pass a good time, cher, in 2019.

Bill Bender of The Sporting News ranked the SEC coaches coming into this season. Nick Saban first, of course. Jimbo Fisher, No. 2 — why not, he has a national title. Kirby Smart, who brought Georgia within an eyelash of winning it all two seasons ago is No. 3 (worth remembering all three once coached together at LSU). And Dan Mullen, who might have been looking up at Orgeron on Bender’s list had not Florida beaten LSU in Gainesville last season, is fourth.

But fifth, in this league, amongst these accomplished coaches, is not shabby.

Of course, opinions are dictated by results. And negative results could flip the opinion of Orgeron the other way. Great expectations are only great if you can live up to the hype. And for LSU this season, frankly there isn’t much margin for error. If the Tigers don’t at least repeat as a New Year’s Six bowl team, there will be grumblings and second-guessing aplenty.

But that’s all to be determined. For now, all that can be done from LSU’s perspective is to perpetuate the notion that the Tigers are poised to once again be a major player on the national scene.

This all seemed quite so unlikely a couple of years ago. Dismal seasons at Ole Miss or not, Orgeron was the natural choice as interim coach in 2016 when LSU jettisoned Les Miles after a Week 4 loss at Auburn. Orgeron then set about to put himself in a position to keep the job permanently.

When Fisher proved to be too expensive and then Houston coach Tom Herman’s candidacy proved to be a mirage — it appeared then as now that Herman’s agent mainly wanted to use the LSU vacancy to drive Texas to the bargaining table — then athletic director Joe Alleva made the quick trigger move to make Orgeron the permanent coach.

At the time one could argue Alleva was overwhelmed by Coach O’s ability to save the 2016 season and exceed expectations. But the more time passes and the more wins pile up, the more the choice appears to be paying off for LSU (for Alleva, replaced by Scott Woodward, not so much).

By the way: Orgeron’s 25-9 record in his first 34 games is the same as Saban’s record after his first 34 games at LSU. For the ultimate measure of respect, though, O and LSU will have to eventually close that gap with Alabama and beat Saban once again.

For today, though, from hot seat to just hot (as in trendy) is progress.


Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com