BATON ROUGE, La. — The famous LSU quadrangle is littered with trash, nearly every square foot possessing some kind of purple and gold debris. Its stillness in the early hour — sometime around 1 a.m. — and the combined glow of the moon and Memorial Tower give it a graveyard feel (appropriate with Halloween around the corner).
There’s a fire burning in a barrel off South Campus Drive, with a group of five Tigers fans soaking in the warmth.
They were all sitting in Tiger Stadium a couple hours earlier, trying to comprehend the freak ability of running back Leonard Fournette, who opened a decisive victory against No. 23 Ole Miss with 249 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 7 carries, and eventually collected a school-record 284 yards on the ground.
Now, the group of late-20-somethings is grappling with two things: “Where are the car keys?” and “What are we going to do with Ed Orgeron?”
The latter question is critical to No. 25 LSU’s future. Orgeron, 55, is 3-0 since taking over for Les Miles, who got canned shortly after a last-second loss to Auburn in September.
In that time, “Coach Oeaux” has gone from stopgap to potential program savior. After a 17-point win over Ole Miss, it’s fair to ask: Is Orgeron worthy of the full-time gig next year?
Pregame, Tigers fans were universally utilizing a wait-and-see approach.
Postgame, there is more optimism, but Orgeron is apparently still an unsexy choice; a consolation prize if Hugh Freeze, Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman all decline the opportunity to lead LSU.
There is one thing Orgeron can do to earn himself the job, though.
“Beat ‘Bama,” the group around the fire says.
Down the block on Highland Road, a tuba player from the marching band dreams of landing Herman, Fisher or even Urban Meyer — a dumb suggestion, he admits — for the gig, but he begins convincing himself that Orgeron might be the best fit.
“To be fair, he’s shown so much promise,” the tubaist says. “Mizzou is not a bad team. Southern Mississippi is not a terrible team. We made them look like a junior-high football team.”
On the other hand, Orgeron still has to prove he can beat top-ranked Alabama.
Two more students down the street refuse to give their seal of approval until they see what kind of fight their Tigers put up against the Crimson Tide on Nov. 5.
“I really hope we can get Tom Herman out of Houston,” one says.
(Or Hugh Freeze, the other adds. Or Jimbo Fisher. They agree defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is damn good, and he should stay, regardless. They also fear a scenario in which Orgeron is let go and LSU fails to lock down a strong candidate before settling for Lane Kiffin.)
Asked what the biggest difference has been since Orgeron took over for Miles, they do not hesitate.
“Offense,” one says. “And a lot more energy on both sides of the ball.”
The stats back this up. Louisiana State struggled to move the ball in four games until Miles, scoring more than 20 points just once, but production has ballooned under Orgeron.
LSU’s 38-21 win over Ole Miss on Saturday was mostly due to a strong run game — a staple under Miles — but the Tigers were able to make several important plays through the air, including a 40-yard touchdown pass from Danny Etling to D.J. Chalk in the second quarter that put LSU up, 14-10.
Etling, Fournette, and an excellent second-half defensive effort made Mississippi look like the team it used to be.
You know, when Coach Oeaux was in Oxford from 2005-2007.
That era of Rebels football, despite a successful one-year interim stint at USC in 2013, is the backbone of his reputation as a head coach. But Orgeron refused to acknowledge the vindication he must’ve felt Saturday in finishing off his old program.
“Absolute zero,” he said, flipping the switch from casual to dead serious. “Whatever happened there was a long time ago.”
His career record entering this season was 16-27, a mark that weighs on some fans’ minds as the LSU continues its evaluation.
But there’s also a new mark — 3-0 — and a newly energized team to consider; maybe a team that can beat No. 1 Alabama for the first time in five years.
Fournette tried to downplay the matchup, saying, “We’re not just gonna put all our cookies in one jar for one team.”
But it feels as if all the cookies for Orgeron are in that ‘Bama jar, much in the same way that Miles’ five-game losing streak to Alabama was the single biggest factor in his ouster.
One reporter asked Orgeron about the excitement these next two weeks promise to bring.
“Well, after you watch the (Alabama) tape, you might not be as excited,” he said in his gravelly Louisiana accent, adding, “I’m just joking … We’re gonna be up for the challenge.”
The search for an answer on Coach Oeaux’s future reached its conclusion outside Chimes, an iconic Baton Rouge bar that, fittingly, serves as the final stop for many weekend wanderers.
Across the street, there’s a kid who dressed as a bunch of grapes, with helium-filled balloons covered in purple cloth to mimic the fruit. He stuck out in the lower level of Tiger Stadium earlier in the night, and he sticks out even more on Highland Road.
He declares he is ready to hand Orgeron the job.
“The guys completely accept him now,” grape man explains. “And the way they’re doing things is completely astounding.”
There’s something that’s been missing for awhile in Louisiana: hope. And whatever Orgeron does — or fails to do — down the stretch won’t take away the fact that he has fans believing in LSU again.
As grape man explains: “I think we have a lot better chance against ‘Bama this year.”
And that’s all that really matters.