BATON ROUGE, La. — Optimism is a funny thing.
Is there optimism surrounding the LSU football program right now? Oh yeah. You better bet there is. Within the last four months, LSU hired a native son to run the team, brought in the most open-minded offensive coordinator in school history, topped off a top-10 recruiting class, retained arguably the best defensive coordinator in college football and embarrassed a dominant offense in a bowl game to boot.
So, yes, there’s optimism around the LSU football program right now. But do you remember last year? There was optimism then too. Sure was. The Tigers were returning the best player in college football, convinced a core of senior defenders to stay for one last season and hired an all-world coordinator to run an all-world defense.
And how long did it take for that optimism to vanish? Four weeks into the season? One week into the season? A quarter?
The point is, there’s reason to be optimistic about the new era of LSU football. But football’s a finicky game driven by the bottom line. And one or two early losses could be the difference between a season worth of unshaken confidence and a panic-ridden September.
So, with all the changes, all the hires and dismissals and arrivals and transfers, here’s a look at the State of the Program for LSU, divided into five important categories and graded relative to the rest of the conference:
SEC standing: Above average
Let’s not kid ourselves. The last five years of LSU football have been pretty good. The only SEC teams with more wins than LSU since 2012 are Alabama and Georgia. And along with Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M, LSU is one of four SEC schools with at least eight wins in each of the last five seasons.
But Les Miles wasn’t brought to LSU to be pretty good, and nor was Ed Orgeron. And while LSU has had two top-5 scoring defenses in the last three seasons and ranks among the SEC’s leaders in rush offense every year, the Tigers have struggled in two major areas recently: throwing the ball and winning versus ranked opponents.
Since Zach Mettenberger left campus after the 2013 season, LSU has ranked 116th, 106th and 101st nationally in passing yards per game. In passing touchdowns? 79th, 105th and 110th. Whether the issue was poor recruiting (Hayden Rettig), poor development (Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris) or bad scheming (Cam Cameron, Miles), LSU hasn’t been able to find a consistent passer that it recruited out of high school in almost a decade.
But more pressingly, LSU has struggled against the best the conference has to offer. Dating back to 2012 once again, LSU is 9-13 against teams that end the season ranked in the Top 25. Against all other teams, the Tigers are 36-5. In short, LSU has as many losses to Alabama in the last five years as it does against all ranked teams.
LSU wins the ones its supposed to. But rarely more. And that’s why athletic director Joe Alleva made a coaching change.
SEC standing: Near the top
The average rank of the LSU football team’s last four recruiting classes, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, is fifth. Not fifth in the SEC. Just fifth.
Sure, when you’re archrival has pulled in four No. 1 recruiting classes in the last four years, it’s hard to be content with two top-5 and four top-10 finishes. But the Tigers have consistently brought in talented prospects from Louisiana (LSU has signed the top in-state prospect every year since 2013.) and outside the state (Jamal Adams, Ethan Pocic and Arden Key, to name a few).
And LSU’s recruiting efforts only figure to get better with the addition of new recruiting coordinator Tommie Robinson. While at his old job at USC, Robinson graded out as the second-best recruiter in the nation, thanks to a class where he signed six players, including a 5-star running back.
When it comes to bringing in talent, there are very few schools that can ever compete with LSU. But signing blue-chip players only means so much. You also have to develop them. Which leads us to …
SEC standing: Middle of the pack
It seems wrong to say that LSU doesn’t develop players well. No school has more former players in the NFL than LSU, after all. The coaches must be doing something right.
But winning 8-10 games per season with a roster stacked with nothing but former 4- and 5-star prospects isn’t all that impressive. Especially when many of those players are transcendent talents such as running back Leonard Fournette, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
Beyond this, there’s the aforementioned quarterback situation. The previous LSU football coaching regime couldn’t find a quarterback to develop. As the story goes, the last quarterback to last four years on scholarship at LSU was Jordan Jefferson, who graduated after the 2011 season. Since then, Jennings and Harris have flamed out, and Mettenberger and Danny Etling have transferred in, late to join the party.
Obviously, there are some great coaching moments in recent LSU football history. Guys such as linebackers Deion Jones and Duke Riley are examples of the wonders coaches have done with long-term projects. Both waited until their senior seasons to break into the starting lineup and both stepped up as team leaders in those situations. Wideout D.J. Chark and cornerback Dwayne Thomas also belong in that group, and players such as linebacker Donnie Alexander and safety Ed Paris look poised to join the club.
But for now, LSU hasn’t done its best work at developing talent at the prime positions on the field. And that might be the difference between New Year’s Six bowls and the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
SEC standing: Above average
You’ll be hard-pressed to find an SEC school with bad facilities. LSU is no exception here.
The Tigers recently gave their football weight room a $2.5 million makeover and still have one of the bigger indoor practice facilities in the conference, an 82,500-square-foot monstrosity connected to four outdoor practice football fields.
On top of that, LSU has one of the most iconic and largest capacity football stadiums in the country in Tiger Stadium. LSU’s football home is the sixth biggest football stadium in America, behind only Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Texas A&M and Tennessee. Across all sports in the entire world, Tiger Stadium is the seventh-biggest athletics venue. And it isn’t just big. It’s loud.
And the stadium isn’t a finished project. The school has been continually trying to add more restrooms and concessions stands to open up the concourses for easier flow of fans.
Aside from the occasional break-in, Tiger Stadium is pretty hard to complain about. And the Tigers’ other facilities are as state of the art as you’d expect. But it’s the SEC. So, that’s the expectation.
SEC standing: Above average
Well. Here’s the important one, isn’t it?
Ed Orgeron was hired to bring the LSU football program back to the SEC Championship Game. Orgeron kept Dave Aranda, a huge retention for the program, and brought in Broyles Award finalist Matt Canada to run his offense. Coach O also hired Robinson to lead the running backs, New Orleans legend Mickey Joseph to teach wide receivers, defensive line guru Pete Jenkins to take over his spot and promoted Dennis Johnson to a full-time role with the outside linebackers.
As far as coordinators, Orgeron can’t have a much better group. Aranda’s work with LSU’s defense last season was nothing short of spectacular. And Canada turned Pittsburgh’s offense into one of the most potent in the country in just a couple of months. Add them next to secondary coach Corey Raymond and LSU has some of the best assistant coaches in the nation.
So, why the B+? Why not an A? Because for as great of a recruiter and developer of talent as Orgeron is, he’s still kind of an unproven commodity as a head coach. His three years at the helm of Ole Miss were disastrous and his interim span at LSU went just about the same way the past four Miles seasons had gone. Beating Ole Miss, Arkansas and Texas A&M is nice. But if you can’t beat Alabama and Florida, you won’t win the SEC.
Orgeron is a better head coach than he was in 2005, when he started at Ole Miss. He’s a natural leader of men and there’s no way he can lose 21 out of 24 SEC games with the talent LSU possesses. But let’s not forget: Virtually everyone ruled Orgeron out as a legitimate candidate for the full-time job at LSU after his team lost to Florida. And he might’ve been LSU’s third choice, definitely second after Jimbo Fisher.
Coach O is the biggest question mark for LSU this season. Can he be the best coach LSU’s had since Nick Saban? Or is he destined to repeat Miles’ mistakes? We’ll have to wait until September to know for sure.
But until then, sure, there’s reason for optimism.