"Looks like we're in for nasty weather...."
As the college football world rolls out of it's slumber on Saturday night, the #25 ranked LSU Tigers will watch in wait for a national showcase game against the #8 ranked Miami Hurricanes on Sunday night in primetime.
While marque matchups are nothing new to Tiger Nation, there has been an unusual amount of hand wringing in the local and national media over this game and opponent. When the rest of the upcoming schedule is taken into account, there is a sudden and shocking level of disrespect being shown to a program that has been ranked outside of the preseason top 14 only once since 2001.
Make no mistake, difficult schedules are nothing new for LSU. Fighting through the SEC West for the past decade plus has been an absolute gauntlet every single year, and there is no reason that Tiger Nation shouldn't have the same level of expectations for this team as we have throughout the Golden Age of Tiger football.
There is just as much talent on this roster as any other recent teams in Baton Rouge. The only thing that has changed is the man at the steering wheel. If Ed Orgeron is indeed the right man to raise the program beyond the level of his predecessors, now is the time for him to step up and prove it.
HOPE YOU HAVE GOT YOUR THINGS TOGETHER
When Joe Alleva surprisingly handed the keys of the LSU football program over to Ed Orgeron, he boldly proclaimed that "Coach Orgeron has demonstrated his ability to run this program with excellence, even under difficult circumstances. I worked closely with President Alexander and board leadership throughout a very deliberate process. By the end of that process, our decision was clear...There was no question he is the man to lead LSU football."
In that same press conference, Orgeron made it clear that he acknowledged and accepted the championship standards inherent with the position he was stepping in to. "My goal is to build a championship program very fast. I understand the expectations at LSU and I invite them because I have the same expectations of myself and my staff."
When the Tigers take the field at AT&T Stadium, it will be Orgeron's 22nd game he leads the team out of the tunnel as head coach. Orgeron has a somewhat respectable 15-6 record in those games. In his last 21 games, which was also by far the worst 21 game stretch of his tenure, Les Miles was 13-8, the record that got him fired.
So while that is technically an "improvement" from the lowest point of Miles' time in Baton Rouge, it certainly doesn't represent the kind of progress that was intended when the decision was made to fire the most successful coach in program history and replace him with his defensive line coach. Especially when you consider that in those 21 games, Orgeron has only beaten two teams that finished the season ranked, suffered the worst loss in the history of the 111 game series with Mississippi State, and the first ever loss to a Sun Belt program as well.
Given the disastrous state of the SEC last season, five of LSU's six conference wins came against teams with interim coaches or coaches that were fired at the end of the year, it is safe to assume that the competition is only going to get tougher going forward.
Orgeron gave away a golden opportunity to lead LSU to it's first New Year's Six Bowl Game last season in the weakened state of the conference by losing to Troy early on, costing the team a 10 win regular season and likely Peach Bowl invitation. That came after another missed opportunity in his interim season, when a home loss to an injury ravaged Florida team in late November cost the Tigers a sure fire Sugar Bowl bid.
With the New Year's Six being the new standard of success in the post BCS era, Orgeron can ill afford a third consecutive season in which he fails to reach that bar. At the end of this season, Orgeron will have coached LSU for 34 games. He won't get much more time than that to significantly and tangibly improve on the results for which Miles was fired, nor should he.
ONE EYE IS TAKEN FOR AN EYE
Another proclamation made at Orgeron's introductory press conference was that he was going to fix LSU's long time struggles on the offensive side of the football by bringing in "the best coordinator in football" and that he would be "all that and more that you ask" [sic]. It was a necessary component to any success or improvement on that front, as the long time defensive line coach certainly wasn't going to fix it on his own.
Orgeron's choice for his offensive coordinator hire appeared to be the very crux of his entire incumbency, and it was assumed that he would succeed or fail based primarily on that decision.
Fast forward to 2018, and Orgeron has already fired the man he hired to that position after a frustrating and volatile year with production that was actually worse than the offense achieved in Miles' last season.
Without getting into the sordid details of why that hire was such a failure, it should suffice to say that Orgeron has now been given a second bite at the apple at his most important duty. It should also be assumed that, once and for all, this decision should determine his fate one way or the other in Baton Rouge.
Orgeron now claims that Steve Ensminger, a beloved former Tiger quarterback and longtime tight ends coach under Miles, was always his first choice to renovate the LSU offense, but felt pressured to hire a "big name" in 2017.
There isn't much to judge this hire on other than Orgeron's words and Ensminger's stint as play caller for eight games after Miles and Cam Cameron were fired in 2016. Much fanfare was made as LSU ran roughshod over five of the nation's absolute worst run defenses in the country, all wins. But the only two ranked teams LSU faced both ended in losses, including a 10 point mistake filled fiasco against an injury ravaged Florida team, and an embarrassing shutout against Alabama in Tiger Stadium where Ensminger managed an abysmal 125 yards of offense and six first downs all night.
Still, with the opportunity to design and scheme his own offense for the first time in twenty years, very few Tiger fans will make any judgements against the native Baton Rouge Slinger until they see for themselves that he is or isn't up to the task.
TROUBLE ON THE WAY
To his credit, Ensminger put on a full court press to bring in the potential answer that LSU has been seeking for years at the quarterback position. Due to an inauspicious series of events on Signing Day that turned into a serendipitous twist of fate, the Tigers found themselves with a scholarship available to give when a former blue chip prospect graduated from Ohio State and decided to transfer to a place he could play his final two seasons.
Few schools in the country had a scholarship to give, and even fewer had a wide open opportunity for someone to come in and start right away. Fewer still had the potential to compete for championships and a gameday environment that could rival what he experienced for three years in front of 100,000+ fans at the Shoe in Columbus while suiting up for the Buckeyes.
Enter Tiger Stadium and our Fighting Tigers of LSU, and it appears to be a match made in the stars.
Burrow is a 6'4 216 pound former Mr. Football of Ohio that can run. He has also spent the past three years learning from perhaps the best offensive mind in all of college football in Urban Meyer, and competing against some of the best players in the country.
While his playing time was limited, the brief glimpses have been impressive, and his performance in spring games and practices has been simply outstanding. Perhaps most promising of all, is the praise he has received from players, fans, and coaches in the Ohio State community since his decision to transfer, which has been universal. If there is a more ideal college quarterback to step in and lead the Tigers at the most important, and sorely lacking, position on this team, it would be a surprise.
There simply isn't much to discuss until we see him in action for ourselves, but there is no question that Tiger Nation should be extremely excited to see what this late addition to our program has in store.
EARTHQUAKES AND LIGHTNIN'
While much has been made about the fact that this LSU team will face four teams ranked in the preseason top 10, LSU will only face one of those teams in a true road game, and the only other ranked team on the schedule is #18 Mississippi State, also in Tiger Stadium.
All in all, that isn't much more difficult than any typical season in Baton Rouge and the SEC West.
LSU will have the unusual advantage of playing four teams that have first year head coaches and are coming off of bad seasons, plus an Ole Miss team still reeling from NCAA sanctions and investigation.
If LSU can go 2-2 against the four preseason top ten teams on the schedule, again, only one of which is a true road game, and take care of business against the rest of the schedule, that would present an outstanding resume to earn the coveted New Years Six Bowl invitation that has eluded the program since the inception of the College Football Playoff system. With Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Ole Miss all rebuilding from disastrous ends to their previous coaches' tenures and Mississippi State being led by a first year ever head coach that has never been a part of the SEC in any capacity, this may be LSU's best shot to take advantage of an extremely top heavy conference and division.
That is a very achievable goal for a team that will feature one of the best defenses in the country, once again led by Dave Aranda, who is now easily the highest paid assistant in all of college football, and even makes more than the majority of head coaches.
Aranda's defense will feature Devin White, who is poised to go down as perhaps the best linebacker ever to wear the purple and gold before he sets off to terrorize NFL offenses next year. Greedy Williams is the superstar of a loaded secondary that also features future NFL stars Grant Delpit and newly reinstated Kristian Fulton.
But the defensive line will be the anchor of a unit that will make life very difficult for every offense this team lines up against. Rashard Lawrence will be disrupting NFL offenses next year, and paired with Breiden Fehoko, Ed Alexander, Glenn Logan and newcomers Tyler Shelvin, Neil Farrell, and Dare Rosenthal, they will make it easy for linebackers like White, K'Lavon Chaisson, Patrick Queen, Jacob Phillips, and Michael Divinity to run free and make plays.
When LSU has a defense this loaded, it has historically mattered very little what struggles the offense may have to deal with.
In fact, in the only other season since 2001 that LSU was not ranked in the preseason top 14, the 2010 Tigers started out ranked #21 and rode a smothering defense to an 11-2 record and #8 final season ranking despite fielding the lowest scoring offense in that same time period.
And if this offense is struggles similarly, something has gone terribly wrong for Orgeron's second offensive coordinator hire in as many seasons.
LSU returns a wealth of experience and talent on the offensive line after going through some growing pains last year with several true freshmen playing substantial roles unexpectedly early in the year. But those players are now seasoned veteran SEC linemen. Combined with two upperclassmen transfers from the JUCO ranks, both of which were highly sought after and praised by Orgeron as key contributors this year, this unit appears set to thrive under new OL coach James Cregg, who Orgeron brought in after working with him for years at USC.
While the backfield may not have the superstar that Tiger Nation has become accustomed to, there is talent and versatility to spare with Clyde Edwards Hilaire and Chris Curry looking like the most exciting young prospects, while Nick Brosette and Lanard Fournette provide veteran leadership and stability.
What proven star power may be missing from the running back position, the stockpile of wide receivers and tight ends should more than make up for in Ensminger's new pass friendly scheme.
Jonathan Giles is a superstar transfer from Texas Tech that will give defenses fits all season long, and blue chip prospects JaMarr Chase, Terrace Marshall, Racey McMath, and veteran Stephen Sullivan give our new quarterback a scary array of weapons with both size to overpower defenders and speed to get behind the defense as well. Justin Jefferson and Derrick Dillon should provide an underneath threat that LSU hasn't seen in years.
But perhaps the most exciting part of Ensminger's new offense will be his use of the tight end position, his longtime specialty, and a position that hasn't been used effectively in the passing game for years.
Ensminger recruited and knows senior leaders Foster Moreau and Jacory Washington, and the addition of transfer Thadeus Moss, the son of NFL legend Randy Moss, makes this a position that will give Burrow more options than any LSU quarterback has seen in recent memory.
While there may be higher ranked teams on the schedule due to more respected coaches, LSU won't face a more talented roster outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama than the one that Ed Orgeron will have at his disposal in Baton Rouge in what is shaping up as a critical season in the direction of the LSU football program.
RAGE AND RUIN
With all of the discussion focusing on the four top 10 teams LSU will face, Miami presents the perfect opportunity in a de facto home game to make a statement to the country right off the bat that this LSU team has been severely disrespected due only to a lack of faith in the current coaching staff.
While Miami is a team that deserves respect, they are the opposite example of how perception can change a team's status with the pollsters. The Hurricanes are led by a well respected, proven, and successful head coach in Mark Richt, and their ranking is based on a sense that he has The U poised as a team on the rise. Ed Orgeron, on the other hand, does not garner the same respect and LSU is seen as a team on the decline under his leadership.
Miami finished the 2017 season 10-3, losing their last three games, while LSU finished 9-4. After years of mediocrity, an Orange Bowl appearance signaled a rebirth of the mystique of The U, despite a resume that wasn't indicative of a top 10 team.
The Canes got off to a 7-0 start, which saw them leap all the way into the top 10, despite the fact that they hadn't played a single ranked team. They beat their first ranked team on November 4th, a decent Virginia Tech team that went on to finish the season ranked #25.
The following week the Hurricanes blew out #3 Notre Dame and jumped all the way up to #2 in the playoff rankings.
They then followed that up with three straight losses to end the season, the first to a 5-7 Pittsburgh team, a 35 point blowout at the hands of Clemson, and a 10 point Orange Bowl loss to Wisconsin in their own back yard.
This is a Miami team that while good, didn't do all that much to earn such high praise coming into this season. They return a quarterback that tends to struggle against better defenses, which LSU certainly has, and a very opportunistic defense that thrives on turnovers. In short, this is a game in which the old ball control teams of Les Miles would thrive.
If Ensminger can build a game plan that allows Burrow to get comfortable with short and intermediate passes to the big WRs and TEs and stress ball protection, Aranda's defense should be able to control field position and time of possession to allow for field goal opportunities from Orgeron's prized JUCO kicker recruit Cole Tracy. That should be sufficient to put enough points on the board to make this a win for the Tigers. With only one year of eligibility remaining, now is the time for Tracy to make his presence felt and impact games.
When it comes to difficult schedules, no LSU team had it tougher than the 2011 team. That team started their run in the very same stadium, and they spent all offseason preparing to come out of the gates explosively against that top 5 Oregon team.
The schedule was used throughout spring, summer, and fall camp as a motivator, not viewed as an encumbrance to success. Rather, it was pivotal to the success that team achieved.
If these Tigers can duplicate that mindset and continue their dominance in AT&T stadium with the whole country watching as the only game on Sunday night, the nation will take notice and LSU will vault up the rankings into the top 15.
That will set up a monumental showdown with the #10 Auburn Tigers in week 3 that will truly show how far Orgeron and his new offensive system have come as competitors in this SEC West.
If LSU wants to keep itself in contention for the elusive New Years Six Bowl, it is imperative to a win at least one of those games to stay on track for that goal.
Of the two, getting a win in Dallas against an ACC team is certainly more likely than getting a win on The Plains against the other Tigers from the SEC West.
Here's hoping Orgeron, Ensminger, and their Burrow led offense are able to give Dave Aranda and his ferocious defense enough breathing room to put on a display to the entire country that will make Tiger Nation proud.
"I hear hurricanes a blowin, I know the end is coming soon...."