With LSU on a bye this week, SEC Country is taking a look at the plays, players and moments that have defined the first two-thirds of the Tigers’ season. Tuesday, we took a look at the biggest “what if?” of 2017. Wednesday, we named the defensive MVP. Thursday, we named his offensive counterpart. Today, we grade the coaches.
Eight games into his full-time tenure as LSU coach, Ed Orgeron has seen enough ups and downs to last him a lifetime.
After two games, it looked as if Orgeron was the best hire in the country. LSU was beating the rails off teams, Dave Aranda’s defense looked impenetrable and Matt Canada’s offense was slicing through opponents while folks like Tom Herman and Jimbo Fisher – the men some fans wanted LSU to hire instead of Orgeron – struggled at Texas and Florida State, respectively.
Three weeks later, it looked as if Orgeron’s tenure was going to end after one season. LSU got blown out by Mississippi State, squeaked past a then-underwhelming Syracuse team and, to top it all, got upset at home by Troy, a Sun Belt opponent that would later lose to South Alabama. LSU’s plan looked muddled and players were accused of looking lackadaisical and effortless, with national pundits blaming Orgeron for LSU’s decline.
After that, something started clicking. The Tigers traveled to Gainesville and beat a ranked Florida team by 1 point. Then they came back from 20 points down to beat a top-10 Auburn team. Then they put up 40 in Oxford to take down Ole Miss. Despite those early losses, LSU is back to being ranked and considered by ESPN FPI as the No. 22 team in the nation.
So the question is this: How much credit does Orgeron deserve for LSU’s return to competence, and how much blame does he deserve for the team’s dropoff before?
Since the Troy loss, Orgeron has done a great job of deferring to his coaches and players in their areas of expertise. Canada’s offensive game plans have fluctuated from basic to exotic with an ebb and flow unmistakably his own. Aranda’s defenses have stifled with stingy pass defense and stout play up the middle from linebacker Devin White. Everything seems to be on track, and Orgeron seems to have gotten out of the way.
Now that everything is out in the open, LSU is playing a more trusting, more communicated game. After Orgeron’s meetings with his team leaders and with Canada and Joe Alleva, everything seems to be out in the open. No one is doubting the message anymore, and as cornerback Donte Jackson and wide receiver DJ Chark have both said, players aren’t comfortable with being comfortable.
You have to give Orgeron credit for revamping the atmosphere after LSU cratered to its lowest point this century. Coach O isn’t the biggest X’s and O’s guy. It’s up to him to build an attitude and foster a common understanding between his players and coaches. And to his credit, he’s done that. It just took losing two games LSU probably shouldn’t have to get things going.
All the problems LSU had in the early going can be blamed on Orgeron overstepping his bounds. Should they? No. Of course not. But can they? Yes.
Orgeron has said time and again the No. 1 lesson he learned from his failed stint as coach at Ole Miss was that he shouldn’t interfere with what his coaches are doing and should stay in his own lane. For example: He isn’t an offensive coordinator, so he shouldn’t influence the play calls. Orgeron’s message all offseason was he would let Canada and Aranda do their jobs and he would stick to his.
Coach O didn’t stick to that message for very long, meddling in Canada’s offensive game plan leading into the Troy game, preaching “simplicity” and leading to one of the flattest offensive performances in modern Tigers history. Again, Orgeron backed off after that game, perhaps leading to LSU’s recent string of success. But one can only wonder where LSU would be right now if Orgeron hadn’t stuck his hand in the cookie jar prematurely.
As was alluded to earlier, you can’t pin the entire Troy loss on Orgeron. Any game where LSU is without Derrius Guice, Rashard Lawrence, Ed Alexander, J.D. Moore and Toby Weathersby figures to be a rough one. But the perception is Orgeron overplayed himself. And that perception isn’t necessarily wrong.
The only way to properly grade Orgeron’s performance in 2017 is to think back to how people felt in August. Before BYU. Before Mississippi State or Troy. Before Florida and Auburn. Before we learned what Canada’s offense was going to look like or how Devin White and Darrel Williams would show up as breakout stars.
Think back to August. This season was supposed to be an optimistic rebuilding year as the Tigers built for a championship in 2018 or 2019. Eight wins was the worst case, 10 wins was the best case. Sitting at 6-2, LSU is still on track.
Had you told LSU fans in the preseason that the Tigers would beat both Florida and Auburn this year, the season would feel like a success. Add a win over the Crimson Tide next week and the season is definitely one.
But even a loss to Alabama puts LSU at 6-3 with a chance to potentially win out and finish in position to be the SEC’s third representative in a New Year’s Six bowl. That potential is a long way off. There’s plenty of season to be played and plenty of mistakes could be made.
But right now, it’s hard to call Orgeron’s first season a failure. No one is expected to go 12-0 and win a national championship Year 1. Relative to the expectations fans should’ve had coming into the season, Orgeron has passed as a coach. Through eight games, at least.