Temperature turning up in Tiger Town
Ed Orgeron needs to escape the controversies that have plagued his LSU tenure in order to make the Tigers a winner again.
Ever since Nick Saban and Les Miles returned LSU to the pinnacle of college football with the 2003 and 2007 national championships, expectations have been sky high in Baton Rouge. When Saban became the head coach of SEC West rival Alabama in 2007 and won championships in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2017, the Tigers slipped behind the Crimson Tide and have struggled to return to the top of the division, much less all of college football.
LSU fired Miles in September 2016 after a 2-2 start and named defensive line coach Ed Orgeron the team’s interim head coach. The Tigers went 6–2 under Orgeron and finished the season with an 8-4 record. At the end of the regular season, he was made the team’s permanent head coach before picking up a win in the Citrus Bowl.
A Cajun, Coach O, as supporters affectionately call him, seemed to be the man to return the Tigers to glory. But a cloud of controversy during his tenure has been a near constant. Last year, he had a falling out with his offensive coordinator that caused the Tigers to stumble out of the gate. This year, before the season has even kicked off, player transfers and suspensions have caused the team to reevaluate where it stands and where it wants to go just days before their first game.
When Orgeron was hired, he agreed to employ highly revered coordinators to run the team’s offense and defense. He reeled in offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda with deals that made them the highest paid coordinators in the country, $3.3 million combined. But the ground the football team stands on has seemingly been as stable as Louisiana swamp mud.
Fractures started to appear in LSU’s coaching staff within the first month of the 2017 season. Whispers out of Baton Rouge said Orgeron and Canada didn’t hit it off and had an icy relationship. The Tigers started 3-2, with losses against conference foe Mississippi State and the Sun Belt Conference’s Troy University.
After the second loss, athletic director Joe Alleva called Orgeron, Canada, and Aranda into his office to “get on the same page.” LSU went 6-1 the rest of the way, finishing 9-3 and earning a consecutive bid to the Citrus Bowl, which they lost to Notre Dame. During bowl week the relationship with Canada frayed, and the offensive coordinator was fired. Orgeron promoted tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, 59, a former LSU quarterback who served as his interim OC in 2016, to the full-time position. Shortly thereafter, new Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, who the Tigers tried to hire to replace Miles, attempted to lure Aranda to College Station. In an effort to save face, LSU gave Aranda a new four-year, $10 million deal to stay.
As the Advocate’s Scott Rabalais reported, his 2018 salary increased from $1.85 million to $2.5 million. That’s $208,333 a month, $48,077 a week, and more than 80 of 130 (62 percent) head coaches in college football’s top division made last year.
Entering the 2018 season, the Tigers had several question marks. They had to replace several starters, including quarterback Danny Etling, running back Derrius Guice, most of the receiving corps and the majority of the starting offensive line.
Offseason headlines focused on the quarterback race. True sophomore Myles Brennan, redshirt junior Justin McMillan, and redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse battled in the spring with none emerging as the starting QB. In June, Joe Burrow, a graduate transfer from Ohio State who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, arrived in Baton Rouge. While the Tigers haven’t named a starter, Burrow appears to be the favorite. Roughly two weeks after fall camp began, unrest struck the team. McMillan and Narcisse, both black, announced they were transferring, leaving LSU with just two scholarship quarterbacks, both white, on the roster.
After McMillan, who is a graduate transfer and eligible to play immediately, left, LSU blocked him from going to any SEC school and other LSU opponents for the next two seasons, a move some see as petty considering he did not have an opportunity to advance with the Tigers. Narcisse transferred to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
While a quarterback controversy can divide and sink a promising football team, the Tigers have also had to deal with the revelation of three felony accusations against players since the start of August. Sophomore linebacker Tyler Taylor suspended on Aug. 8, after officials learned of an arrest in May in which he is accused of being an accomplice in the burglary of a Georgia pawnshop. Junior wide receiver Drake Davis was arrested in Baton Rouge and accused of punching and grabbing a former girlfriend by the throat on at least four occasions. Offensive lineman Ed Ingram was suspended before camp started after the alleged aggravated sexual assault of a minor.
The combination of events led Orgeron to meet with some of the team leaders, who in turn called a players’ only meeting to discuss issues facing the program. After the session, nola.com spoke to a handful of players about the topics broached.
“I think there were some questions about our team, and if we were going to separate or come together,” linebacker Jacob Phillips was quoted as saying.
Senior tight end Foster Moreau, who this season was rewarded with the honor of wearing No. 18, a distinction given to a player who has achieved success on and off the field and displayed a selfless attitude that has become the epitome of being an LSU football player, said, “Guys were upset. You hate to see guys like that go. I mean, we love them, Justin and Lowell. They were brothers. They were teammates. Great guys to be around, high quality, high character, stand up dudes.”
While players did not go into specifics, they agreed there have been tensions.
“We got a lot of things going on that we don’t agree with,” safety John Battle said, “but a lot of things have taken place, so we were just making sure guys stay on track, keeping everybody accountable. Protect the team at all costs.”
Orgeron said the meetings were about getting on the same page, “deciding what we want to be about” and “what our goals are.”
It’s shocking that the head coach would be involved in similar meetings in less than a calendar year.
With less than two weeks before LSU kicks off the 2018 season that has to send a shiver up the spines of the Tiger faithful. Coming together as a team and establishing goals is something that should be done in the spring, not a handful of days before the season begins, especially considering the challenge posed in the first month of the season.
LSU’s first game is against Miami, ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press preseason poll, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday, Sept. 2. Their third game is on the road at No. 9 Auburn on Saturday, Sept. 15. With Southeastern Louisiana and Louisiana Tech slotted for games two and four, the Tigers could realistically exit September 2-2 – the same record that brought the axe down on Miles. Their next six games are a gauntlet of SEC foes. They play at home against Ole Miss, at Florida, at home against No. 3 Georgia, No. 18 Mississippi State, No.1 Alabama, and on the road at Arkansas. They close the season with a home game against Rice and end on the road at Texas A&M.
While the Tigers enter the season at No. 25, that ranking may be due to past glory and not accurately based on this team’s talent, especially considering the rankings were made before all of this news became public.
With LSU breaking in a new quarterback, as well as new starting running back, receivers, and a majority of the offensive line, there has to be some concern for this team, not to mention the future of the program, from even the most die-hard Tiger fans.
Orgeron may be able to pull through this and give Tiger fans the winner they crave. But if LSU has another disappointing season in 2018 it will fall squarely on the head coach, and his ability to survive the season will surely be questioned. If there is any good news, the search to replace him shouldn’t take long. Aranda, 41, the first college assistant to be paid more than $2 million a year, is young, talented, and would likely become the next head football coach at LSU.