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Delusional Optimism is More Delusional and Less Optimistic

It’s just one game. It’s just one game.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Mississippi State
Spotlight is on you, pal
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Almost one year ago, LSU finally ended its seeming interminable existential crisis over the Les Miles era, and fired the coach. As we said at the time, regardless of your feelings for the coach, it was time. This was no longer the Les Miles you loved, and even if it was, time remains undefeated.

We couldn’t spend every season having the same old arguments with the same old people. Sometimes, it’s best to move on and make a clean break. LSU tentatively moved into its new era last September and now here we are, a year later, stuck in the same place, having the same arguments.

Want to know how long we’ve been having the LSU is in decline argument? One of the very first pieces Richard Pittman wrote when he took over ATVS was a referendum on Les Miles and whether he was a good coach. That was May of 2008, a few months after winning a national title. That’s how long we’ve been doing this.

I’ve been fighting the good fight against the charges of mediocrity for ten years now. And I’m thrilled Paul is picking up the mantle and doing the heavy lifting for it right now.

But I’m also the guy who wrote this when Ed Orgeron was hired:

This was a chance to do something bold, and instead we settled. This was a status quo hire right after the administration made a clear signal the status quo wasn’t good enough. If we were going to do this, why didn’t we spare ourselves the headache and just keep Les Miles? What’s the difference? This is an administration without a plan.

I don't want to say that Coach O is a guaranteed failure. It's more that I just don't understand Alleva's thinking at all. You can frame this however you want, and Ponamsky has proved himself to be a master at PR, but this hire is about minor tweaks, not a major blowup. I felt that once you fired Miles, you were on the path of major blowup and it was time to see it through. Alleva clearly felt that it was just time for minor tweaks and a major messaging overhaul. This is a sequel, not a reboot.

That means you should probably take anything I’m about to say with a grain of salt. However, I’m trying to give fair warning. I’ve been pushing this rock up the mountain for a decade, but it keeps rolling down the other side. You’ll forgive me if I change tact.

This was a Historic Loss

Any discussion of the game and its meaning needs to start with working through our stages of grief, maybe with a quick stopover at bourbon, and getting to Acceptance. This was a historic loss. There’s no need to be in denial about it, nor does this make it more than what it is, which is one loss. Terrible losses don’t count twice in the standings or anything.

Cody Worsham has assembled the numbers already on just how bad of a loss this was, so I defer to his numbers. It was bad, both in the context of the State series and SEC openers for LSU head coaches. Please, give him a click, and let’s talk about those numbers when you get back.

OK, after I’ve given him a plug, I will take some issue with Cody’s numbers: beware arbitrary endpoints. The reason he chose the last 13 games is so he could include the three-game losing streak in 2015 while excluding a four-game winning streak. I never trust a chart specifically designed to make the numbers look as poor as possible.

LSU is 10-6 in its last two seasons, going 5-3 both years, and has started 0-1 this year. Here is a list of all the teams in the SEC which won 10 conference games over the past two seasons: Alabama (15), Florida (13), LSU (10). Georgia and Tennessee are at 9 wins. LSU suddenly looks a lot better when you don’t throw in an endpoint after a major win streak, cutting off a half season.

However, the numbers about the loss are rock solid. LSU has not lost to Mississippi St in this fashion in its entire history. And because this is about more than State, it is also a bad omen for future success.

It’s not just that LSU lost, it’s the fashion in which it lost. This was sort of the ultimate nightmare scenario for an Ed Orgeron coached team. Every possible concern you might have had about him based upon his prior record was on display, right down to a team that seemed to give up on the game because it couldn’t emotionally get over a bad call on the first drive of the game.

Yes, it was a bad call. Get over it.

Historic or No, It Only Counts Once

However, there’s also some encouraging results in that chart of comparables. Both Les Miles and Nick Saban lost their first SEC games at LSU. Les let a huge lead slip away in an eventual overtime loss to Tennessee.

Even more encouraging, Saban lost by 17 to Auburn. He would follow this game up with a now infamous loss to UAB. LSU would rally for a win over Tennessee, but then would get their doors blown off by Florida, 41-9. Saban would go 1-3 in this stretch. His defense would allowed 30 points to every SEC team in this stretch, and the offense only scored above 17 points once, the 38-point explosion against Tennessee.

LSU would win 5 of their next 6 games, including the Peach Bowl. LSU would win the SEC title the following year, and the national title in Year Four of his tenure. Sometimes, a loss is just a loss.

Many coaches lose in embarrassing fashion in their first year at a new gig, and it’s no indictment on their abilities:

  • Dabo Swinney lost three of his first five games after having the interim tag pulled off at Clemson, capping off that run with a loss to Maryland.
  • Paul Chryst lost his Big Ten opener to Iowa, a month after getting whollopped by Alabama in the season opener by 18. He won the Big Ten West the next two years.
  • James Franklin won two Big Ten games his first year at Penn State, mainly because he got to play Rutgers and Indiana. He was another coach to lose to Maryland in his first season.
  • Clay Helton got the interim tag lifted at USC in 2016, and promptly lost to Alabama by 46 points. He followed it up with losses in his first two conference games. USC hasn’t lost since.
  • Mike Gundy went 4-7 his first year at Oklahoma St in 2005, and only won one conference game. He lost to Colorado by 34, Texas A&M by 39, and Iowa St by 27.
  • Chris Petersen went 8-6 his first year at Washington despite a preseason top 25 ranking, qualifying for a bowl game only because Washington managed to beat Hawaii by a single point.
  • Jim Harbaugh lost his first game at Michigan 24-17 to Utah. Later that year, he’d guide Michigan to a win over Ohio St and its first 10 win season in five years.

You get the point. That’s the current coaches at virtually the entire top 10 right now. Bad losses didn’t derail them. This isn’t a career ending loss. It’s not even season ending. Much like that pass interference call in the first quarter, you’ve got to get over it.

The reason this one sticks out so much is because of the aforementioned historic nature of the loss, but also because Les Miles didn’t get blown out. It is the height of irony that Miles could not escape the specter of Nick Saban, and now Orgeron is haunted by Miles’ legacy.

But Miles only lost by 30 points twice in his tenure. Once, in 2014 to Auburn, was the beginning of the end for his tenure. It was also a freshman quarterback making his first start on the road. It was asking for trouble. The other was a 2008 loss to Florida, the eventual national champion.

This fan base simply does not remember what it is like to get pantsed. It’s been a long time since it happened without a pretty decent rationalization ready on hand. This time, there is none. Even if State turns out to be pretty good, which they likely are, LSU fans aren’t used to losing by over four touchdowns to pretty good teams.

Don’t freak out, it only counts as one loss.

Winning Is Hard

Now that we’ve all agreed not to over-react to one bad loss, let’s now face the second hard truth, and one that’s a little bit more difficult to swallow: LSU is probably going to decline from where it has been the last few seasons.

Like I said, Paul’s already done the heavy lifting on where LSU ranks nationally as a program or in the SEC. And that sad truth is, that level of success probably isn’t sustainable. Not because LSU is punching above its weight class, but because all programs go through these cycles, and LSU has been on an Up Cycle this entire century.

There’s also the issue that replacing a coach is hard. It’s almost impossible to get it right one time, but LSU is now trying to strike gold on three consecutive hires. That’s a tall order, and one that would buck the historic trends.

LSU has not just made a bowl game, it has won at least eight games every season since 2000. That’s a remarkable run of success, unmatched in the conference. Only one other team has double digit consecutive winning season (Alabama at 10), and only five programs in the SEC have had double-digit eight-win seasons this century.

SEC consecutive winning seasons.csv

Team Consecutive Winning Seasons Consecutive 8-Win Seasons Winning Seasons 2000-now 8-win Seasons 2000-now
Team Consecutive Winning Seasons Consecutive 8-Win Seasons Winning Seasons 2000-now 8-win Seasons 2000-now
LSU 17 17 17 17
Georgia 6 6 16 16
Florida 3 2 16 13
Alabama 10 9 13 11
Auburn 4 1 14 10
Tennessee 3 2 11 9
Missouri 0 0 10 9
Texas A&M 7 5 12 8
Arkansas 3 0 11 8
South Carolina 0 0 12 7
Mississippi St 0 0 8 6
Ole Miss 0 0 10 6
Kentucky 1 0 6 2
Vanderbilt 0 0 3 2

Maintaining this level of success is difficult, and LSU is likely to slide backwards simply due to inertia. That doesn’t mean the slide will be of Tennessee-esque proportions necessarily, but the boom and bust cycle of Auburn is not out of the question. Hell, it’s likely.

LSU had settled into a slow and steady sort of success cycle. This meant that LSU rarely lost games it shouldn’t, but it didn’t win many games it shouldn’t either. They beat the teams below them in the pecking order, lost to Alabama, then split with their equals, and went home with a respectable record. We probably have moved into an era in which LSU beats Alabama more often, but finally loses to Texas A&M.

LSU Needs to Move Forward

More than anything, LSU has underestimated the task at hand. That’s why the powers that be promoted from within and made a safe hire. Joe Alleva made a hire that cared more about the floor than ceiling, and ironically, it lowered the floor on the program. Eight wins is no longer the floor.

The reason we are here still relitigating the past, and still talking about decline phase and mediocrity is because LSU couldn’t bring itself to move on from the Miles era. Sure, Alleva finally fired Les Miles, roughly a year after he wanted to, but he didn’t then move into the next era. He instead decided to try and stay where we were.

Of the ten coaches on LSU’s staff this season, seven of them were drawing a paycheck from LSU last year. Sure, there’s guys in new positions and a new OC, but by and large, we kept the gang together. LSU decided that the state of the program was so unacceptable that the head coach must be fired while simultaneously believing that the status quo was so good that continuity must be valued and most of the staff would return.

Frankly, that’s insane. And it is this sort of bipolar decision-making which is why LSU is still mired in the same existential crisis we thought we had put behind us last season.

That two-sided thinking has infected the coaching staff as well. The roster was so good that the team was going to compete from Day One, but it now also has so many holes that we’re in a rebuild. It’s Schroedinger’s Roster, neither stacked nor empty.

The fact of the matter is that this roster has tons of experienced talent. It not only passed Bud Elliot’s Blue Chip Ratio, but Vegas set the win total at nine. 247sports Composite Team Talent Ranking has LSU with the sixth most talented roster in the nation.

And that’s not all the vaunted freshman class, that’s experienced talent. LSU has 41 juniors and seniors on scholarship on the roster, and 20 upperclassmen were four-star or better recruits. This is one of the best rosters in the country.

Yes, the lines have depth issues, but Orgeron does not get a pass there. One, the defection of offensive linemen happened on his watch. He’s the guy who oversaw five linemen leaving the program, so that’s on his bill, not anyone else’s. And he gets no waiver for the defensive line issues because he was the DL coach for the past two seasons, not to mention the recruiting coordinator last season.

If he doesn’t like the meal, Orgeron can’t blame the ingredients. He helped buy them. He especially gets no pass for the defensive line, where he was the position coach.

What Now?

The loss was bad enough that it caused an eruption in the sports media of people desperate to join in the pile on. Some of that is justified, and some of that is simple clickbait. Writing off his Orgeron’s entire tenure is premature, but going through buyer’s remorse is perfectly justified.

LSU just drove off the lot with its shiny new coach, and it has reason to believe it bought a lemon. The whole point of the Orgeron hire was to safeguard against lowering the floor, a reason that seemed to fly out the window once Mississippi St. dropped 37 on us. Ed Orgeron has never won an SEC road game, and his previous tenure at Ole Miss ended with a 3-21 SEC record, the worst in conference history.

He had a nice interim period at LSU, but how successful was he really? LSU played four top tier teams during the regular season, and lost to all of them, twice for each coach. Arguably, the worst loss of the season was the home loss to Florida, which was on Orgeron’s watch. We traded clock mismanagement for player mismanagement, which isn’t much of an upgrade. Orgeron didn’t so much win the job as LSU was scared to go out and risk a less pedigreed coach once Tom Herman took the Texas job. AD’s get fired for hiring the likes Jeff Brohm if it doesn’t work out.

At the same time, the current obsession with Ed Orgeron’s buyout is silly. It doesn’t matter.

That’s because LSU is not going to buyout Ed Orgeron. There’s being concerned about the job Ed Orgeron is going to do in Baton Rouge, and then there’s headed straight to the panic room. Barring untold disaster, Orgeron is going to be the coach for at least three years because that’s what coaches get when they get hired. We’ve made a commitment, and we need to stand by that commitment.

Does the LSU fanbase and boosters deserve to wander in the wilderness for a few years due to their hubris in firing Miles and thinking his success would be easy to replace? In a just universe, probably. But Alabama’s continued success is proof we do not live in a just universe. LSU will not decline due to karmic retribution.

The best course of action… heck, the only course of action, is to ride this one out and throw all of our collective resources behind the coach. He needs a united fanbase behind him to help with recruiting and to preserve Tiger Stadium as a feared place to play. We need to help hold the locker room together. A fractured fanbase only makes things worse.

It’s just one loss. It’s all about holding together and growing stronger through adversity. The players were in the building on Sunday, their day off, committed to working to get better. They are working to ensure that one bad game is an aberration and not a trend.

For Orgeron’s sake, it better be.