LSU is coming off a 5-5 season complete with a self-imposed bowl ban and a Title IX investigation — one of the most-disastrous encores of all time considering the heights reached in the 2019 national championship season.
Yet LSU coach Ed Orgeron put a Cajun-flavored spin on what he learned heading into 2021.
“I’m going to do it the way I want to do it,” Orgeron said at SEC Media Days on Monday. “If I can fix it, I will. If I see something broken, I’m going to fix it.”
Can we get Orgeron to belt out a Sinatra cover of “My Way” next? Orgeron’s tenure is difficult to assess, but if it gets worse this could be the curtain call.
Sporting News ranked Orgeron No. 14 in its annual 1-130 Coach Rankings, the lowest ranking for an active coach with a national championship. That ranking was influenced by last season and the Title IX investigation involving former players Derrius Guice and Drake Davis, a matter which Orgeron declined to comment on during his press conference.
Which path will Orgeron follow? Nick Saban won the BCS championship at LSU in 2003. The Tigers went 9-3 the following season before Saban bolted for the NFL. Les Miles won the national championship in 2011. The Tigers went 37-14 the next four seasons while Saban’s dynasty at Alabama stretched into the College Football Playoff era.
Orgeron is on a different path, one that has been loosely compared to former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who won the national championship in 2010 but was fired after a 3-9 season two years later. If Orgeron wants to do it his way, then he can’t do it alone.
He will need the help of incoming coordinators Jake Peetz and Daronte Jones to press reset for a program that hit both extremes the last two seasons.
That starts with Peetz, who worked with former LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady as Carolina’s quarterbacks coach last season.
In 2019, Brady won the Broyles Award as part of a season when the Tigers led the FBS with 48.4 points per game behind Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. That included seven games with 50 points or more.
Brady left for the Carolina Panthers, and LSU averaged 32.0 points per game with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger in 2020. The Tigers scored 12.6 points per game in losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn.
Ensminger slid back to an analyst role, and Orgeron went back to the well by hiring Peetz. He is tasked with bringing back that unstoppable offense, and that starts with picking a quarterback between Max Johnson — a sophomore who led the upset against Florida last season — and redshirt season Myles Brennan — who suffered an abdomen injury after three starts in 2020. Orgeron also mentioned freshman Garrett Nussmeier, so it is an open competition.
That is the short game.
“I want to see the same type of plays; the same type of adjustments that were so successful for us,” Orgeron said. “That doesn’t mean that’s the only thing we’re going to run. But that is going to be the basis of our offense, which is a spread offense, which we learned under Joe Brady.”
Peetz must prove that Burrow’s season — which won’t be matched — was not a one-year wonder for LSU. The Tigers must show they can produce elite-level NFL quarterbacks on an every-year basis. That is the long game, and the standard Orgeron is looking for.
Recruits will be watching. LSU has a commitment from Walker Howard, a five-star quarterback from St. Thomas More in Lafayette, La. The Tigers are in the race for 2023 five-star quarterback Arch Manning, a junior at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. Manning also has offers from Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. Will this offense be attractive enough for those quarterbacks to stay close to home?
That is half the way back.
The defense is on its third different coordinator in three years. Dave Aranda took the Baylor job in 2020, and the one-year experiment with Bo Pelini was a disaster in 2020. The Tigers allowed 41 points per game in losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn last season.
New defensive coordinator Daronte Jones is tasked with fixing that, along with future NFL cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks, and Clemson transfer Mike Jones should fit in at linebacker. Orgeron also said a philosophical change is coming on that side of the ball.
“We’re going to play a lot more zone,” Orgeron said. “They’re not going to be switching off this level, switching off that level. We want our guys to play, keep the ball in front of us and make plays.”
LSU has a top-five recruiting class lined up and seems out in front in terms of NIL, but the investigation still hangs over the program. What happens on the field will be the tie-breaker. That is what makes LSU the boom-or-bust-team of 2021. Is LSU the team that got lit up by Mississippi State and Missouri last season? Or did the Tigers take lessons from late-season victories against Florida and Ole Miss to get back to that 2019 form?
Orgeron pointed to the latter to reach a glass-half full conclusion for all the events that transpired in that rough-and-tumble 2020 season.
It’s also his way back.
“You have the No. 3 recruiting class, and 19 of your 22 starters decide to come back,” Orgeron said. “So that says something’s going on in the locker room. Something’s going on. Our players believe in each other. I think all of those things at the end, we ended up being an ascending program.”