BATON ROUGE, La. — On the day he was hired to be the next head coach of the LSU football team, Ed Orgeron made his intentions pretty clear.
Orgeron wants LSU to be the gold standard of the SEC, the team against which all other teams are judged. But like Zeus trying to gain control of the skies or an up-and-coming contender challenging for the heavyweight title, LSU won’t be able to reach this status without first dethroning the SEC’s current gold standard: Alabama.
“You are judged by that game,” Orgeron said at his introductory press conference of LSU’s yearly tilt versus the Crimson Tide. “That’s the nature of the beast. I say, ‘Welcome it.’ I say, ‘Bring it on.’ I can’t wait until the day we beat those guys. That’s the benchmark.”
As Orgeron outlined his plan to compete with Alabama, it became evident that Orgeron adheres to the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy of team building. To beat Alabama, Orgeron said that LSU has to be more like Alabama, recruiting the same caliber of players and hiring the same caliber of coaches.
But it’s important that LSU doesn’t conflate trying to be like Alabama and trying to be Alabama. Because, as some former LSU football players will contend, that’s a recipe for disaster.
“If somebody is having success, you better bet that 10 teams are going to copy it,” former LSU running back Jacob Hester said. “But I think you just have to find ways that better your football team. If you start getting in the game of playing copycat, you’re going to get in trouble.”
The copycat game
LSU hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2011. To put that in perspective, think about the LSU football team’s incoming class of recruits. The last time LSU beat Alabama, this year’s crop of high school seniors and early enrollees were in the seventh grade.
Alabama’s streak of six consecutive wins against LSU is the Crimson Tide’s longest streak since the end of the Bear Bryant era, when Alabama won 11 in a row between 1971 and 1981. During Bryant’s streak, Alabama was ranked in the top 5 for nine of its 11 wins. During the current streak, Alabama has been ranked in the top 5 all six times.
The sort of success Alabama has had over a consistently good LSU program is virtually unprecedented. USC’s longest streak of top 5 wins against Notre Dame is four. Ohio State has never won more than two games in a row against Michigan as a top 5 team. Yet, Alabama consistently finds a way to defeat LSU, be it in overtime, in the fourth quarter or in blowout fashion.
So, it’s no wonder LSU finds itself in a position where it arguably should be copying Alabama’s formula. But that’s a dangerous philosophy to buy too deeply into.
As Hester explained, Alabama’s strategy works because it’s the best fit for Alabama. But just as teams across the country don’t look at Washington State’s offensive success and mimic Mike Leach’s air raid, teams should also resist the temptation to see Alabama’s success and mimic Saban’s outlook.
Especially teams that are already as close to success as LSU.
“I think LSU can really just improve on what they’ve done,” Hester said. “What they did defensively last year, if you can replicate that on that side of the ball, obviously you can be very successful and get to that top 4 status … because defensively, they had a championship effort. Offensively, I think they made some big strides. I think there’s still one or two things they can improve on, and if they do, it bodes well for them.”
‘If it was any other coach …’
When Florida was the toast of the SEC, winning championships left and right, LSU fans were angry. When Auburn won its SEC titles and rode mobile quarterbacks to BCS championship appearances, LSU fans weren’t happy. But there’s something different about Alabama.
And former LSU quarterback Herb Tyler knows what it is.
“[Beating Alabama] is important for one reason and one reason only. I think the fan base has that reason misconstrued,” Tyler said. “The fan base wants LSU to beat Alabama because they don’t like Nick Saban because he left for the NFL to try to better himself, to try to see if he can do it. That’s the only reason why the fan base doesn’t want LSU to lose to Alabama. Because it’s Alabama and Nick Saban. If it was any other coach, they probably wouldn’t care as much.”
The anointed mastermind of the Alabama dynasty, Saban had himself a pretty good career at LSU before he ever arrived in Tuscaloosa. Between 2000 and 2004, Saban posted a 48-16 record on the Bayou, winning two SEC championships and one BCS title.
But then Saban left to be the head coach of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. In two seasons, Saban achieved middling success, going 9-7 in his first year (2005) before finishing 6-10 in 2006. Three days after the 2006 season ended, Saban accepted an offer to replace Mike Shula as the head coach at Alabama.
From there, Alabama returned to its winning ways, winning five SEC and four national titles. And, more importantly to LSU fans, the Tide have won eight of their 11 matchup versus LSU.
So, again, it’s natural to want to beat the Tide. Not only are they beating everybody, but they’re beating everybody with a coach who theoretically could’ve brought that kind of success to LSU. Of course, Orgeron “can’t wait until the day” LSU beats Alabama. It’s as much about Louisiana pride as it is about beating a good football team.
But Tyler doesn’t think this should be anyone’s outlook, be it Orgeron, the players or the fans.
“Every game in the West is important because you want to win the West and have a chance to go to the playoff or whatever you want to do,” Tyler said. “So, yes, every game on every schedule from here on out against an SEC West team is just as important as the Alabama game and an Alabama win. The extra toppings and the strawberries and the cherries on top is the fans just want to beat Nick Saban. They feel bad because he left.”
The trickle down
When Tyler was in school, Ole Miss was LSU’s biggest rival. When Hester was in school, all anyone wanted to do was beat Florida. But then, his senior year, he noticed a change.
“It was Nick’s first year at Alabama. You could really feel that this game was going to be something a little bit different,” Hester said. “It’d be like Urban Meyer going to Tennessee or Bobby Bowden going to Miami. It doesn’t happen. It’s a unique situation.”
Back then, guys like Hester were caught in the middle. Saban recruited them to LSU, but there he was on the opposing sideline.
Today, no such conflict exists. The rivalry Saban created has trickled into all facets of the LSU athletic experience. When the LSU basketball team hosted Alabama last weekend, fans taunted Alabama’s bench with stats and moments from Alabama’s College Football Playoff loss to Clemson. Two days later, LSU’s gymnasts beamed about defeating Alabama for the fourth year in a row, with senior Ashleigh Gnat describing the experience as “a real honor.”
But when it comes down to it, LSU-Alabama is a football rivalry. And Alabama owns it.
What can LSU football do?
If copying Alabama isn’t the solution, what is? Well, the best answer seems to be learning how to be comfortable doing what makes Alabama uncomfortable.
The prevailing notion is that mobile quarterbacks beat Alabama. But for every Deshaun Watson or Johnny Manziel who beats Alabama, there’s a Josh Dobbs (0-4 versus Alabama) or Dak Prescott (0-2 versus Alabama).
To Hester, having a true dual-threat quarterback isn’t a pre-requisite to beating the Tide. That said, you need your quarterback to be able to move.
“I think you have to have a quarterback who is extremely good in the pocket and can surprise you with his feet,” Hester said. “That’s not necessarily a dual threat. That’s just a guy who is athletic enough to make a play with his feet when he has to.”
As LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda explained to SB Nation before Alabama played Clemson, the thing that makes Alabama so dangerous is that it game plans against your flaws, not toward its strengths.
Variety seems to do the trick. But another thing that might work out is controlling the ball. Which is something that LSU was surprisingly bad at in 2016.
For a team that ran the ball as often as LSU did, the Tigers were oddly dreadful at possession. The Tigers ranked 40th in the nation in time of possession but ran the fourth-fewest plays in college football in doing so. Alabama, less surprisingly, ranked No. 7 in the country in total plays but No. 46 in time of possession.
“If your identity is going to be to run the football, I think time of possession has got to be one of those stats that you go into every week with it on top of the board,” Hester said. “We’ve got to win the time of possession to win this football game. I thought they did a good job in the bowl game of staying on top of the clock. And when you play guys like that, that has to be your main goal.”
And Alabama is definitely one of those teams.