LSU Auburn Football

LSU coach Ed Orgeron walks the sideline during the first quarter against Auburn on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Auburn, Ala.

Last year, everything was hunky-dory for LSU football, a reporter reminded Ed Orgeron.

“I like that,” the Tigers’ beleaguered coach replied with a barrel-chested chuckle.

As if Coach O had to be reminded what a reverse image 2020 is for his program compared to 2019.

This time a year ago the Tigers had just blasted Texas A&M 50-7 to complete a 12-0 regular season. They were fixing to run roughshod over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game, which everyone knew was but a coffee break on the road to College Football Playoff glory.

A year later, virtually every key player from LSU’s record-setting offense is no longer at the school, the latest player to opt out being star wide receiver Terrace Marshall, who a couple weeks ago was trying to rally the troops (now ex-teammates) with a rah-rah speech. It’s gotten so bad so quickly for the Tigers on offense, the much-maligned LSU defense was the heroic band of misfits who deserved the praise from Saturday’s 20-7 loss at Texas A&M, allowing just 267 yards and 13 points.

Of course, the season isn’t over. We are entering the coronavirus pandemic version of stoppage time (soccer term), with three games left on the docket against three teams that could all leave what’s left of the currently 3-4 Tigers defeated in their wake.

LSU is bitterly living out the old axiom, “Be nice to people on the way up because you’ll meet them on the way down.” The Tigers beat all comers last year going 15-0, including Alabama 46-41 in a Tuscaloosa showdown, and they are lining up to return the favor this season. The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide comes to town bearing grudges and bad intent, and after the way LSU celebrated its win last year, now doubt has a Baton Rouge beatdown on its pre-Christmas list.

The question isn’t whether the Tigers are capable of beating the Crimson Tide or not. Without five or six turnovers, probably including a pick six and a scoop and score, the answer is no way. The question is whether this season is a momentary blip, a stumble, a dazed champion coming off the ropes before coming back to deliver a stunning left-right-left combination in the near future.

That is the hot debate among LSU fans these days. That along with whether it is better to win a national title one year and have a losing season the next or be like, say, Georgia or Oklahoma, which is always flirting with the top rung on the ladder but never quite grasps it.

Of course, the title is what you want. That’s the whole purpose of all this, especially this year when college football is bending heaven and earth to try to get a season in and crown a champion. But there is also the goal of being a consistent contender.

As I wrote before the season this is still the final frontier that LSU football is — vainly, to this point — trying to reach. Only Alabama in this century with five has more national titles than LSU’s three, an impressive fact. But LSU has followed those national title years in 2003, 2007 and 2019 with progressively worse seasons: 9-3 in 2004, 8-5 in 2008, 3-4 to this point in 2020.

The first day of the work week is Orgeron’s self-styled “Tell the Truth Monday.” Look honestly at what was good or bad from the previous game, address it and try to get better for the next game. To that end, I believe he’s telling the truth when he said he believes this season is the aberration, not the gloomy future, for his program.

“We built a championship program,” he said flatly. “We will be champions again. Recruiting is going well. We’ve got some great young players. We have some stuff we have to get fixed, I know we have to fix it. I've done it before, and I'll do it again.”

That last sentence. That’s the one that will come to define whatever lies ahead in Orgeron’s tenure as LSU’s coach. Because with each passing defeat this season — whether they have come because of matador-like pass defense or, as was the case Saturday, matador-like blocking on offense — the doubters in Coach O grow.

Doubt in his ability to run a major college football program is as familiar to Orgeron as his practice whistle. Doubt was silenced for about four months last season, from the end of the win at Texas to the moment Orgeron and Joe Burrow and the rest lifted the CFP trophy off its base on the confetti-littered floor of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after vanquishing Clemson.

But the doubt is back, and like the soon-to-be rolled out COVID-19 vaccines, it’s coming in a double dose.

Things to work on, start with team culture, culture that took a hit during this summer’s social unrest culminating in a team march across campus that canceled a practice and took Orgeron by surprise. With veterans like Marshall leaving, it will take time to rebuild.

Orgeron will get that time, barring another blindside from LSU’s current investigation into allegations of mishandled sexual assault claims. So one is left to ask:

Can you see Orgeron lifting another national championship trophy at LSU?

Could you have envisioned him doing it the first time?

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com