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LSU coach Ed Orgeron looks on during the first half against UCLA, Saturday, September 4, 2021, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

After losing 16-14 to Wisconsin in Green Bay to open the 2016 season, followed by wins over Jacksonville State and Mississippi State, LSU’s fourth game at Auburn became Les Miles' Waterloo.

LSU lost 18-13 in quintessential Miles-like fashion, having the skill to score the winning touchdown on the final play only to have it erased because the snap came after the clock expired. Then-athletic director Joe Alleva fired Miles the next day and installed Ed Orgeron as LSU’s interim head coach.

Orgeron passed Alleva’s “audition” by going 5-2 the rest of the regular season to become LSU’s permanent head coach. Then he beat Louisville in the Citrus Bowl. Three years later, in January 2020, Orgeron stood beaming with justifiable pride on the floor of the Caesars Superdome after LSU beat Clemson 42-25 in the CFP championship game. At his side was Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, the straw that stirred the rich drink of the Tigers’ success, the man Orgeron convinced to take a chance on LSU when he was looking to leave Ohio State.

Less than two years later, Orgeron faces his most important test since Clemson as he takes his Tigers to Starkville for Saturday’s 11 a.m. game with Mississippi State. It's a game that may prove pivotal to his future as LSU’s coach.

This is not to imply exile is waiting for Orgeron back in Baton Rouge if he slips to 2-2 like Miles did five years ago. Two-thirds of the season remains. As Orgeron and the Tigers proved in 2016, winding up in the SEC’s most prestigious bowl outside the New Year’s Six games, ships can be turned around.

Win at Mississippi State, where LSU is a 2½-point favorite, and the Tigers are 3-1 carrying a huge bankroll of momentum going into next Saturday’s 8 p.m. prime-time showdown with Auburn in Tiger Stadium. Death Valley, which has been pretty dead for LSU’s first two home games against McNeese State and Central Michigan at much less than full capacity, probably will be rocking like in days of old.

Lose to Mississippi State, the team that ran LSU out of Tiger Stadium in 2020 with a 44-34 win that was more one-sided than the score indicates, and the knives will be out. The boo birds will be out. And Orgeron’s seat, already warm, will be scalding.

His tenure is split into three easily defined chapters. In 2016-17 he was a respectable 15-6 with a pair of Citrus Bowl appearances, though 2017 was scarred by a 37-7 rout at Mississippi State and that infamous 24-21 loss at home to Troy. Then the Burrow years, when the Tigers went 25-3 with a New Year's Six bowl win in the Fiesta and that 15-0 national championship season when virtually everything went right.

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Since then, it seems everything that can go wrong has for LSU and Orgeron. Seniors and juniors left en masse for the NFL. Assistant coaches have changed and changed again. There was a players' protest in August 2020 that caught Orgeron off guard, a host of preseason and in-season player opt outs, and the troubles associated with a pandemic that made circumstances difficult for everyone. Now Saturday's game is clouded by a late-week injury to cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. that has left LSU's star cornerback "very questionable," according to Coach O. It's a bad way to fly against State's "Air Raid" offense.

Orgeron’s staff and players are virtually 100% vaccinated against COVID-19, allowing LSU to avoid or at least minimize the potential of a coronavirus outbreak that might force the Tigers to forfeit a game. That's a big plus. But there have been other issues, like that “sissy blue shirt” jab made to a UCLA fan entering the Rose Bowl before the Tigers’ 38-27 loss Sept. 4. Or the fact that no one on LSU’s staff of 30 coaches and analysts noticed that officials put the ball at the wrong 45-yard line Saturday against Central Michigan, costing the Tigers 10 yards that might be game-changing on another week.

At best, it gives the impression of a program and a coach unfocused. At worst, it gives the impression of a program and a coach where little things add up to big things. And little things will get you beat in the SEC.

Win or lose Saturday, the Tigers still face a rocky road. Every SEC West team besides LSU and State are ranked in the AP poll, and the Tigers still have to play them all: No. 1 Alabama, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 13 Ole Miss, No. 16 Arkansas and No. 23 Auburn. There’s also a road trip to Kentucky, historically a tough out for the Tigers.

UCLA made it difficult to envision LSU not losing at least four or five games this season. On the heels of last year’s 5-5 record, a season fraught with handicaps not of Orgeron or LSU’s doing, it would be tough to imagine him surviving if LSU finishes worse than 8-4. The last LSU coach to lose five or more games in consecutive seasons was Gerry DiNardo in 1998-99. Nick Saban was LSU’s coach in 2000.

The outlook is grim, but Orgeron is a tough out, too. His teams are 16-1 after a defeat, only once having lost back-to-back games. That was against A&M and Alabama last season. How did the Tigers respond to that? By going to No. 6 Florida and pulling off a 37-34 stunner in the fog that ranks as one of LSU’s most brilliant upsets ever.

Avoiding the upset Saturday is everything for Orgeron. The season, and his future, may depend on it.

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com

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