How do you define success?
If you polled the LSU fanbase in mid-August, asking “How do you think LSU’s season will go?” my guess is the most ringing endorsement you’d have heard back is, “I don’t know.” Most took one glance at the schedule and penciled in four, five, six or even seven losses.
Then September happened.
Now, it’s Mid-November and LSU stands at 9-2 with a very winnable game standing in their way for a Sugar Bowl berth. That is success. By any measure.
It’s Mid-November. LSU ranks 87th in yards per play, 74th in Scoring Offense, & 72nd in Offensive S&P+. These marks are among the worst in the conference, obviously. And, yet again, we are left wondering just what in the hell is wrong with our offense. That is failure.
Which path do you choose?
Success at any major college program will always be defined by dollars generated and wins produced. There’s correlation but not causation between the two. Viewed in that prism, it’s difficult to rate LSU’s season as anything but a massive success.
Yet, we’re left a bit wanting. The poor offense continues to prove thorny on an otherwise capable LSU team. We’ve cycled through countless numbers of talented signing classes, several different offensive coordinators and even a few scheme changes and none of it ever seems to take. It’s hard to dole out blame when it seems like every party deserves a seat at the table. And yes, we must acknowledge there’s even a new head coach overseeing the struggle.
It’s difficult to resist the temptation to skip to the end of this story we’ve all seen before. Sure, LSU managed to win a couple toss-up games this season, but with an offense like that, it’s not repeatable and won’t be long until the program is right back losing 4-5 games again. Hell, losing four games isn’t even off the table for this team, yet. If LSU’s offense remains anemic, it’s very likely the program remains stuck in the same hamster wheel of the past half decade, exhibiting moments of brilliant competence, perhaps even felling an over-matched foe, only to eventually succumb to Alabama and a couple of other lesser opponents. When will the cycle end?
Success on paper that feels like failure is often the most difficult to digest. Oh sure, at the end of the day, we’ll all look back and remember 2018 as the season we upset Georgia and returned to the Sugar Bowl. But it’s also the season we did that with an offense again ranked in the 100s... oh and we fired our offensive coordinator the year before said production because, you know, differences.
Perhaps, instead of jumping to the end, we should remember this is the beginning. Steve Ensminger may be a million years old, but this is Year One of his run as Offensive Coordinator. Lacking track record, he gets no benefit of the doubt, but let’s not forget the obstacles he’s faced through no fault of his own:
- First-year starter at QB
- QB new to the program
- No QB depth & back-up injured most of the season
- Offensive line replacing three starters, with multiple starters out in different games
- Replacing top two receivers
- Replacing top two running backs
That’s an immensely tough row to hoe, for any offensive coordinator. Yes, LSU has talent on offense, but DJ Chark and Derrius Guice aren’t going to walk out that locker room in 2018. Take a quick peek ahead and things start looking a lot more optimistic. LSU returns its entire receiving corps for 2019 while adding four-star Trey Palmer and likely, four-star Devonta Lee to the mix. They’ll also add Kenan Jones and Jaray Jenkins off redshirt seasons and should have Thaddeus Moss into the tight end mix for another pass-catching option. That gives you a deep, diverse and talented group of experienced players and some guys you can slowly sprinkle in to bring you along.
But the major boost will come on the line and at running back. On the OL, Brumfield is gone, but every other player in the two-deep returns and LSU gets to add four-star Dare Rosenthal and three-star Cameron Wire into the competition. Additionally, they’ll sign a guy named Kardell Thomas, you may have heard of him. Four-star Anthony Bradford is another guy that could be physically ready to go by next fall. Suddenly LSU’s banged up and thin OL looks deep, experienced and talented.
At running back, LSU took a down turn this year merely fielding a regular ole 1,000-yard SEC back and another runner in the 750 yard range. Ho hum, where’s the star? His name is John Emery and he’s coming in 2019, along with Tyrion Davis, giving Coach O a replication of his Reggie Bush/Lendale White duo of vintage USC years.
Yes, I recognize that we’ve seen this story before. LSU’s nearly always amongst the most talented and LSU fans complaining about talent is like Jeff Bezos crying about losing a chunk of his net worth due to a bad day at the market. Guess what Jeff, you’re still rich.
Sprinkle in a healthy Myles Brennan and the additional QB depth of Peter Parrish and perhaps another incoming freshman and suddenly LSU’s got what looks like a fully deep and talented offensive depth chart for the first time in many, many years.
Now consider all the ways the above issues impact developing an offense. LSU’s offense operated best in 2018 when Joe Burrow could be a running threat. Knowing Brennan dealt with injury adds a ton of context to Ensminger’s decision not to dial up those plays more often. Go gameplan an offense where your best receivers are true freshmen learning both the offense and how to play college ball. Then, for good measure, toss in the sliver of differences in having a good back vs. having an elite one and how that can transform a running game.
Is Ensminger the man to develop those pieces? I have my doubts. But I’m willing to give him 2019 to prove me wrong. Orgeron should too. What he should not do is mistake the winning record for any measure of success on offense. LSU is succeeding, again, despite its offense, not because of it. And that, simply, should not be acceptable.