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Delusional Optimism Ain’t Dead Yet

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So take your autopsies and shove it.

Troy v LSU
No giving up now
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There’s no way around it right now: LSU is a bad football team. The Tigers’ statement win to open the season has been completely devalued as BYU continues to lose. We spent a week or so clinging to the idea that Mississippi State was at least a quality loss, before the Bulldogs dropped consecutive games by 28 and then 39 points.

One week after struggling with Syracuse, the bottom fell out and LSU lost to a Sun Belt team. As the calendar turns to October, LSU has no quality wins and two bad losses. LSU sits at 3-2, and we haven’t even gotten to the difficult part of the schedule.

Things look bleak right now, and when things look bleak, the buzzards and I told you so’s start coming out of the woodwork. Just about everyone had to write an autopsy of LSU this week, which assumes that the Tigers are already dead. They ranged from gloating to remarkably fair, but at least the sheer number of articles shows that LSU football still matters. It’s when they stop writing articles that you worry.

The I Told You So’s can be ignored for multiple reasons.

Firstly, no one is impressed. Either the reader agreed with the writer in the first place, so you don’t get credit for predicting something the reader did. And everyone else just thinks you’re an asshole. It’s looking at a story and thinking, “Hey, how can I make this about me?”

But mainly we can’t even agree what we’re I told you so’ing about. One camp sees this as validation that Les Miles deserved to be fired because he had laid waste to the program and the roster. Another camp views this as proof of the incompetence of Ed Orgeron. The mere fact two groups could look at the same set of facts and draw opposite conclusions proves that maybe one shouldn’t be crowing that the facts obviously validate your worldview.

However, the time is not to throw up our hands and give up. After all, we’re not Auburn fans. We don’t concede full seasons. I’ve got little sympathy for Tiger fans who have adopted a woe is us posture, spending their time researching Coach O’s buyout instead of looking at how this team can get better.

The current staff deserves a full-throated support right now. Barring a complete meltdown, a coach needs to time to implement his own vision for the program, and any transition will have its hiccups. Okay, I’d prefer if that hiccup wasn’t losing to a Sun Belt team, but Coach O is in the process of remaking the team in his own image, and we are nowhere near the finished product.

Because as bad as it’s been — and it has been bad — this is when the tough gets going. This is the time fans are made because there is nothing better for long-term fandom than suffering. Sports are all about suffering, and our run of success the past two decades have cause all of us to get fat and lazy (or maybe that’s the cooking and all of the booze). Still, these are the days you’ll be relating to younger, more annoying fans a generation from now. And they will hate you for it, just like y’all hate me for my Curley Hallman obsession.

But before we crawl out of this hole, we need to assess exactly where we are and how we got here. There’s no shortcuts to success, and trying to enter the cheat code is what got us into this situation. Some of this misery is self-inflicted, but it’s possible that it is necessary. Pass the Golden Flakes.

There’s been a lot of talk about the quality of the roster. Paul did a deep dive into this yesterday, as did Bud Elliot on the mothership.

The depth chart issues are indeed real, but there’s also a bit of making the facts fit an established worldview. There are few bigger proponents of the value of talent above all else than Bud, a writer who claimed in the preseason only a few teams had the talent to compete for a title, and LSU was one of them.

This lookback is a post-hoc rationalization of why LSU’s talent doesn’t actually qualify as blue chip despite meeting the definition as blue chip. This means that LSU was a false positive and his theory is still correct. It’s not about LSU, it’s about advancing his theory of college football.

Now, that doesn’t mean Bud is wrong. A senior at LSU probably is a guy who wasn’t good enough to go pro as a junior. But this wasn’t a look at LSU so much as it was a writing LSU out of the Blue Chip Ratio theory. But it only takes a cursory glance at the games to see that line play is a serious issue on both sides of the ball. It’s not like anyone is making the issues up.

But these depth issues are the difference in contending for titles. Not whether you qualify for a bowl at all. It’s a real issue, but it is not as extreme enough to cause the start LSU has had. So what has?

Attrition

When Ed Orgeron took over the team last year against Missouri, LSU published a three-deep depth chart at every position, as it does for every game. How many of those players are still on the team?

The defensive line lost just two players, a senior starter and a junior early-entry to the draft. However, LSU also gained a player back to its depth chart, as LaCouture came back from injury for another shot at his senior year. He wasn’t on the depth chart last year. LSU had three freshmen in the depth chart, and all return, though one is a redshirt. So, of nine players, six returned plus one injured player returned to the fold. This team should have seven veterans on the defensive line. You can see Paul’s breakdown on why they don’t.

The issue is worse on the offensive line. There were 13 different players listed in the three-deep, and two senior starters graduated. There were no senior backups and no juniors declared for the draft. Heck, three starters, two of them sophomores last year, returned and started last week.

Yet LSU has no depth on the line is being forced to start freshmen. 11 players were supposed to return, three of them starters. The starters are fine, but of those eight returning backups, only three actually returned. And of those three returnees, one redshirted last year.

That’s five players who left the line, not counting Willie Allen, not due to the draft or graduation. Look, guys transfer, but that kind of exodus is on the coaching staff for its failure to manage the roster. It’s not like he took over the team in December. Orgeron was coaching at this time last year, and this amount of attrition is on him.

But it’s like that everywhere. LSU listed 11 starters on each side of the ball, with two backups at each position. Now, there’s some guys who show up multiple times, but in broad strokes, we had 11 starters and 22 backups on each side of the ball.

On offense, LSU lost four senior starters and two juniors to the draft. On defense, LSU lost six senior starters plus another two juniors to the draft. First off, I’ll point out that having senior starters wasn’t a detriment last year for LSU’s talent, yet now it is? But that is a lot of starting talent to leave the program.

However, look at the backups, which are the guys you need to be easing in to plan for that future attrition. LSU lost one senior out of 22 backups on offense, and two seniors on defense. That’s only three players out of around 40 backup players last season who graduated. There is plenty of continuity from last year’s roster.

Yet now we have no talent? What happened to all of those players?

Injuries and Suspensions

Well, 15 players were injured or suspended for Troy. Some of that is bad luck. Nothing you can do about Derrius Guice, a true difference maker, sitting on the sidelines due to injury. Or Arden Key, a freakish NFL talent, playing at disinterested half-speed. I get that. Those are huge losses, and that’s before we get into the losses of depth.

But some of it is just poor management, and points to a guy who might be losing the team.

My wife is a school teacher, and there’s a bit of wisdom regarding classroom management that is applicable here. You can come in as a hard ass, and then slowly loosen the rules and maintain order and discipline. However, you can’t come in as the nice guy, and then try to get tougher as time goes on. The students will rebel, even if the net result is still a more liberal classroom than the first teacher.

Ed Orgeron came in with a reputation as a player’s coach. He wanted things to be fun, and he made practices easier and started playing music and having fun. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that, but somewhere along the line, he decided he needed to tow a tougher line, and there has been a rash of suspensions for unspecified rules violations.

Now, we don’t know what’s going on in the locker room, but from a distance, this looks like that nice guy teacher trying and failing to instill order too little, too late.

Because here’s the big issue, as Paul points out, even the depth issues aren’t enough to account for a loss to Troy. The talent gap is still way too large for it to be solely talent. There is something else going on here.

Now, I don’t think the roster issues are as pronounced as the talent guys think. I don’t think there’s a structural issue from what Orgeron inherited, but there is an issue with the multitude of linemen he ran off from the program (or, more charitably, failed to keep in the fold). More importantly for this season, he’s missing his best player on both sides of the ball due to injury. Key is scuffling through and Guice is on the shelf waiting to heal up.

Yes, he’s had bad injury luck, but I think the suspension luck might be on his own management issues. But it’s not the players not playing that’s costing LSU, it’s the ones who are playing…

Mentally Soft

Because this team is half-assing it. Yes, the defensive line has depth issues. We also have four seniors, two with starting experience, leading the unit. And they are getting pushed around by smaller, less experienced, and frankly, less talented units. LSU shouldn’t need to dip into its third string to beat the likes of Syracuse and Troy. The depth issues are keeping LSU from being a championship caliber team, they are not causing the team to be 3-2 against a Charmin soft schedule.

You could see the Troy line pushing LSU’s line all over the field even in the first quarter. Frankly, that’s before depth becomes an issue. It shouldn’t happen, and it’s because guys aren’t giving their full effort.

If it was just one guy loafing on plays, it would be a player issue. But it’s not. It’s entire units, and it showed up in the stats like LSU’s complete inability to get a third down stop against Troy nearly all game. If the whole team is flat, that’s on the coaches.

There are few people who have spilled more words on Curley Hallman than I have, and while he was a God awful football coach, his teams did generally play hard. LSU football built its reputation on effort. We revere guys whose work ethic exceeded their talent. That’s the legend of the 1979 USC game in a nutshell.

LSU teams play hard, they hit hard, and the fans then party hard. That’s the agreement. Watching an LSU team simply go through the motions makes me sick. I can accept being out-talented, but not getting out-efforted.

Right now, LSU is getting out-efforted.

This team is mentally soft. As soon as one thing goes wrong, they collapse like a house of cards. Worse yet, they make one mistake worse by failing to rise to the occasion. Nick Brossette starts the game with a fumble? OK, that sucks, but that’s when it’s time for the defense to rise up, get a stop, and the get the crowd pumped up. Show some heart.

That goes for the fans, too. This is not the team to leave the stadium early. When the team gets pinned back on its goal line and needs to make stand, they need you screaming at the peak volume your whiskey-coated lungs can muster.

I don’t believe the problems are with the talent of the roster, I believe its with the capacity of the team’s heart. That infuriates me, and yeah, I’m mad as hell at the coaches for failing to whip this team up into the appropriate fervor.

But here’s the good news. You can’t fix lack of talent. You can fix lack of effort. Just because this team has slept-walked through the opening month of the season, it doesn’t mean they can’t wake up right f’n now.

You know what? It’s hard to get up for Syracuse and Troy. It’s even hard to fully get up for Mississippi State, especially when everyone in town is telling you how you just need to show up and they will roll over for you.

Know what isn’t hard? Getting up for Florida. This is a team that is so openly dismissive and disrespectful of the Tigers, they made this game their homecoming. They are treating LSU like we’re USL.

You think you have depth problems? Florida has nine players ineligible to play because they are busying fighting off felony fraud charges. The Gators lost their quarterback due to a broken collarbone, so the back up came and guided them to a win.

This is a team that has fallen bass ackwards into a series of wins. They have simply been present on the field while their opponent self-destructed. Kentucky failed to cover a wide receiver. Twice. Tennessee forgot their quarterback sucked and kept throwing the ball despite dominating on the ground.

The Gators are salivating over the opportunity to show up and watch you self-destruct. They think that’s all they have to do, and we haven’t given them any reason to think otherwise. Now is the time to show some pride. Go out there and play up to your Blue Chip ratings and beat the snot out of these pretenders. It’s not about talent. LSU has talent. We have more talent than Florida. It’s about effort. It’s about pride.

The season, hell maybe Orgeron’s entire coaching career, is on the brink. This is when the weak get timid. This is when whiners make excuses. This is when Tigers show what they are made of.

There ain’t nothing wrong with this team that isn’t between the ears. Stop moping, start winning. If you can’t get up for Florida, you ain’t ever getting up.