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Delusional Optimism is Feeling Like Neither

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A sobering splash of reality

Alabama v LSU
Things aren’t going well, are they?
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Let’s not beat around the bush. 2020 has been a nightmare season for the LSU football team and the offseason cannot get here soon enough.

The latest bit of news to send the LSU fanbase into a panic is the rumor that Arik Gilbert is considering transferring. He was not at practice yesterday, his mother is in town, and Orgeron was on the radio this morning not even bothering to deny the rumors.

This unleashed the floodgates, and now rumors are flying regarding BJ Ojulari transferring as well.

That would be doubleplusungood.

To be honest, Arik Gilbert I can take or leave. He’s a tight end who doesn’t block or make tough catches over the middle, which means his entire utility is as a receiver. He’s a good receiver, but that’s the one position the LSU roster is pretty stacked at right now.

On the other hand, BJ Ojulari leaving would be an utter disaster. He’s already the team’s best rush end and he’s only going to get better. There’s no one else on the roster with his skill set.

That said, this isn’t about one player transferring. This is about a program that isn’t just taking on water, it’s under a deluge. There’s a common adage that once a coach has lost a program, he can never get it back, so the question that has to be asked is this: is this just a perfect storm of bad luck contained to one year or is this a genuine hitting the iceberg moment?

It seems like there’s been an endless stream of bad news since the national championship game, but let’s put on our Hazmat suits and go through each event to see if this is bad luck or bad management? What is a problem that is contained to this ear and what looks like an ongoing concern?

Nine underclassmen declare for the NFL draft

Obviously, losing nine underclassmen on top of the departing seniors, which included the Heisman Trophy winning star quarterback, weakened the team this year. But early departures are a feature, not a bug, of this program, and LSU has consistently absorbed early entrants.

Besides, this is the difference between competing for the national title and being a borderline top 10 team, not the difference between being a really good team and… whatever this is.

More importantly, who made a bad decision? LSU had 14 players drafted, 10 in the first three rounds. The only early entrant to slip out of the top three rounds was Saahdiq Charles, and he’s also on injured reserve. But he was an older player for his class and it wasn’t a bad decision to go pro. Almost everyone else is thriving (or on IR… pours some out for Joe Burrow and Grant Delpit).

This was a problem, but it wasn’t a program destroying problem, and is more one of those good problems. LSU has too many NFL caliber players. Yes, it meant LSU wasn’t going to repeat, but it also doesn’t explain losing to Missouri.

The Whole Offseason Curtain Call

When Ed Orgeron got hired, there was a long line of people who ripped LSU for making a stupid hire. After his early struggles in year one, the line got longer and a lot louder. Quite frankly, Ed Orgeron had earned the right to take a little bit of a victory lap and shove it in the naysayers faces, which were multitude.

Yeah, I know Nick Saban never celebrates. He’s also a joyless automaton and I don’t want my program to be a spirit killing machine. I want joy, I want some chaos, I want fun. Sorry. But when we start chiding people for celebrating championships, perhaps you’ve missed the point of sport. Or life.

OK, that said, maybe he needed to dial that one back a bit. He wrote a book, he appeared on Fox News for reasons passing understanding, and then signed a big extension. Look, he won a title. He earned that money. But if you’re looking for the moment complacency set in, it wasn’t the media blitz or even the petty controversies which arose in the aftermath of the celebration… it was in how he spent his new found capital.

LSU Replaces Its Coordinators

Dave Aranda took a bow and then left for the Baylor job. It was an earned promotion to head coach, but it was no secret that Aranda and Orgeron clashed philosophically. LSU lost one of the best coordinators in the nation, but we weren’t sad to see him go. Now, Orgeron would get to install his system.

Out went the 3-4, in came the 4-3. Aranda’a complicated, cerebral system went with him, to be replaced with an attacking defense which would blitz as often as possible. The words from Orgeron’s moth now read like a confession:

“Dave Aranda did a tremendous job for us, but I’m just glad that we moved to the 4-3. We’re more of an attacking style of defense. We’re using our personnel. Bo’s done a tremendous job for us.”

And of course…

“We are so much better on defense right now than any part of the season last year,”

Ed Orgeron brought in Bo Pelini to coach the defense, and it has been nothing short of a disaster. Worse, Pelini was making $400,000 at Youngstown St. last season and was on nearly nobody’s radar. LSU doled out a three year contract worth $2.3 million a year, making him the second highest paid assistant in the nation.

Less disastrous, Joe Brady left for the NFL. He was never going to stay, so that one was more on the “rejoice it happened” ledger. But instead of doing the legwork he had done before, plucking a little known analyst from obscurity, this time, Orgeron settled.

Orgeron hired the 56-year old Scott Linehan to pair with the 62-year old Steve Ensminger. Orgeron tried to play it safe with a boring vet and the moment you stop trying to innovate, you’re in trouble. On its own, its not a terrible hire, but coupled with the Pelini hire, it showed a total lack of ambition. Worse yet, LSU was settling. The atrophy had taken hold.

Orgeron Gets Divorced

I don’t want to belabor this point, and this certainly isn’t a gossip blog. However, I do want to point out that getting a divorce is one of the most stressful personal events one can go through, and it would cause almost any person’s job performance to suffer.

More than that, the Coach’s Wife is almost a de facto unpaid position. The head coach’s wife for almost any program is often that Mom Away From Mom from the players. She helps the players and coaches as people, and we will never know the true impact of the tireless work they do behind the scenes, but it is a significant role. Losing that leaves a hole not just for the coach as a person, but for the team.

COVID

This is the elephant in the room. There’s no telling the impact COVID had on this season and how much of that is just limited to this one incredibly weird season. There was almost certainly an effect, but there is also an open question how much of the effect is simply showing the symptoms of some other problems.

Every team had to face COVID, and not all of them spectacularly face planted. Alabama, of course, continued in their same psychotically efficient matter, but I’m not sure that’s as worthy of praise as they seem to think it is.

But for whatever reason, LSU seemed to be harder hit by the secondary effects of the Zombie season than most any other program. There were no practices to install the offense or defense, multiple players opted out, and then the injuries mounted that the team was throwing whoever they could in whatever position just to make it through practice. While it’s cool Zach von Rosenberg was playing quarterback in practice, I’m not sure it’s a good thing that our 30-year old punter was reportedly effective against our defense.

COVID is going to go away, but the underlying issues of roster management, coaching systems, player development, organization, and simply getting players to buy in to the program do not. It’s impossible to tell how much is from Column A which will resolve itself and how much is from that grab bag under Column B. Which will only fester and get worse.

The Second Wave of Player Losses

I’m not gonna lie, it’s bad.

LSU went into spring practice returning just four starters on offense and two on defense. LSU was going to have rebuild even in a normal season, but this wasn’t a normal season. And LSU maybe could have reloaded in a normal year, but the second wave of losses simply gutted an already thin roster.

But forget about losses from the title game, check out the losses since spring practice. LSU published its anticipated depth chart for the Florida game, and if Arik Gilbert opts out, LSU will have lost from its spring depth chart:

The starting QB, two starters from its offensive line (both demoted for poor play), all thee starting WR, and its starting TE. On the other side of the ball, the entire starting defensive line is no longer on the team and one starting LB is also gone.

So, after needing to replace essentially its entire starting lineup from 2019, LSU lost five starters on each side of the ball from spring practice, and further had to demote two of its offensive linemen. I do not know if there is a program in the nation that can withstand that level of attrition.

Now, some of that is a one-year problem. What on earth are you to do about that level of attrition? But the key was limiting the damage to 2020. This is why the Gilbert and Ojulari news is so big. It starts to infect next year with the rot of 2020.

The Title IX Investigation

I essentially refuse to talk about this as a “football matter” because if your top concern about an investigation regarding sexual assaults is wins and losses, then you’ve completely lost perspective. But let’s just say that a dark cloud has settled over the program off the field as well, and it’s not the kind of thing that magically goes away.

I’m not going to speculate about the outcome of the investigation, but I will make this prediction: SOMEBODY is getting fired. Even if LSU did nothing wrong, which is unlikely, you cannot have this kind of public relations disaster without heads getting rolled. And if LSU did act inappropriately or even illegally, then people deserve to get fired. The investigation is being conducted by a law firm with no connection to LSU or Louisiana politics, so their goal isn’t to do the football team any favors, their goal is to find the truth of the matter.

If this were the Huey Long era, that report would almost certainly pin everything on Ed Orgeron so the school could fire him without paying him a buyout. But I’m hoping we’ve moved past that sort of open corruption.

The Recruiting Class

There’s been some recent defections from the class, but to be honest, it’s been nothing major. Now, LSU desperately needs more top tier offensive linemen, and Tristan Leigh is therefore the most important recruit still out there.

Orgeron can limit a lot of the damage of 2020 by keeping the class in the barn and closing strong. Then he needs to turn to the transfer portal and keep guys here, and maybe bring in some contributors as well. This might be the better way to immediately shore up the line instead of relying on freshmen to do the job.

Moving Forward

2020 doesn’t matter. It’s always been the Zombie Season and it’s basically been an ad hoc season in which all of college football has collectively placed their heads in the sand and tried to pretend a pandemic wasn’t happening nor was having an outsized impact on the season. It was and it did.

Making unpaid students play through December, during the second spike of COVID in which over 2000 people a day are dying from the disease, is simply insane. We’re honestly lucky no one has died, but we have no idea what the longterm health effects will be. This season has been beyond reckless, and a testament to the collective power of denial.

From a football standpoint, it is up to Orgeron and the staff to limit the damage to the program to just this year of collective insanity. If you can write it off as this was a dumb idea and we never should have played, and we almost certainly should have stopped once our players started getting hurt and sick, then you can salvage the next year. Notre Dame went 4-8, but it has won ten games every year since then.

A bad year, especially this bad year, doesn’t have to be an indictment of the program. But it becomes one the moment the issues extend past this season and into the next. And that means keeping players here for 2021.

If Orgeron can’t hold this class together and can’t keep key contributors on the roster for next season, then he’s lost the program. And once you’ve lost the program, you almost never get control back again.

On his own, Arik Gilbert doesn’t really matter. But what he symbolizes does. Orgeron has to maintain the illusion of control of the program. Do whatever you can to preserve 2021, even if it means letting every player who wants to opt out for the rest of 2020. What do these games matter? Nothing. Let the walk-ons play and have a story for their kids.

And this goes to something our beloved punter tweeted out:

This has been a hard year to be a freshman football player at LSU. Put yourself in their shoes for a second. You’re coming in to a team that won the national title and while their may not be title aspirations this season, they still think they are gonna win 10 games or so. Then COVID hits, even more people opt out, your starting QB gets hurt, the defense sinks, and you have this dismal losing season.

On top of that, you’re trapped in your room in a strange place. You don’t have the normal freshman year where you get to meet new people and experience this new place. Instead, all you do is practice, play, and go to online classes. You don’t do anything because there’s nothing to do. And no one to do it with. And as badly as the year is going, you circle the date on your calendar when you get to go home and recharge...

...but you can’t. Because instead of the season ending, the powers that be add three more f’n games to the back end of the schedule. And even though its a losing season, you’re gonna go to a bowl game, which just means more practice and because of the compressed schedule, no time off. It’s enough to push anyone to the mental breaking point. You just want to go home, but they keep pushing the end date back and back. So if anyone wants to opt out for the rest of the year for mental health reasons so they can hit pause and come back next year fully refreshed and ready to go... well, you would have to be a sociopathic monster to oppose that.

Seriously, y’all. Take care of yourself. Take all of the time you need.

Still, Orgeron’s got to get to the offseason to stop the bleeding. Then begins the most important nine months for the LSU football program in decades. He’s got to get everyone to buy back in. This is where we see if Orgeron can run this program, or if he’s running it into the ground.