Joe Brady, who joined the Tigers’ staff for one season as the passing game coordinator and was widely viewed as the architect of an offense that piled up 48.4 points a game, left shortly after the national title to become the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator. That couldn’t have helped, either.
Throw in some opt-outs during the pandemic, an SEC-only schedule and a self-imposed bowl ban, and last year’s 5-5 mark makes some sense. In a normal season, maybe the Tigers go 8-4. The most demanding of fans wouldn’t have liked it, but it wouldn’t have been a terrible price to pay for 2019’s perfect run.
Regardless, it could be chalked up as an aberration last winter, one Orgeron hoped a staff overhaul and a more typical cycle (a full spring practice, a nonconference schedule, etc.) could improve upon.
It’s becoming harder to do so halfway through this season. The Tigers opened with a loss at UCLA before ripping off three consecutive victories. But then came a 24-19 loss to Auburn when LSU squandered a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter to suffer a home defeat against the SEC West’s other Tigers for the first time since 1999.
Last week was even more sobering. Kentucky doubled up LSU 42-21 after leading 35-7 early in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t a game frittered away. It was a pounding administered by an opponent that was flat-out better.
And if Kentucky is flat-out better than LSU, there have to be some alarms going off in Death Valley. Kentucky hasn’t finished a season ranked higher than the Tigers in the Associated Press poll since 1977. LSU appeared in the final rankings 25 times in that span compared to the Wildcats’ two. This is not a normal state of affairs.
Now take a look at the Tigers’ remaining schedule: No. 20 Florida (4-2) at home this week, then a trip to No. 13 Mississippi (4-1). After an open date, LSU visits No. 5 Alabama (5-1) before closing out the year with home games against No. 17 Arkansas (4-2), Louisiana-Monroe (2-3) and No. 21 Texas A&M (4-2).
Suddenly, the concept of Gene Chizik Territory feels more real and less theoretical.
Chizik was an unexpected choice for Auburn after the 2008 season, having gained no traction in his first head coaching gig (going 5-19 at Iowa State) before coming to the Plains. But in his second year, he led a team with a transfer quarterback (Cam Newton) who went on to win the Heisman and become a No. 1 overall NFL pick to an undefeated season and a national title.
Auburn went 8-5 in 2011, then 3-9 in 2012. Chizik was out of a job after a wild four-year run.
The echo is discernible. Orgeron, of course, sputtered in his first head coaching job at Mississippi, though he did well in an interim capacity at Southern California in 2013. He had a title season fueled by a transfer quarterback (Burrow) who won the Heisman and was the top pick in the NFL draft. And now, just two years later, LSU fans are growing increasingly cantankerous.
SEC West schools and their supporters are not renowned for their patience in the face of any sort of sustained adversity, and they tend not to view eight-figure buyouts like the one Orgeron enjoys as serious impediments to change.
Only two years ago, the Tigers were being described as one of the best college teams ever. LSU might be the center of a far different kind of conversation if this season continues to slip away.
Five with the most at stake in Week 7
1. Kentucky. The Wildcats are 6-0 for the first time since 1950, so even a blowout loss at No. 1 Georgia shouldn’t spoil things for Mark Stoops’s team. But a victory in Athens would do even more for No. 11 Kentucky’s profile than its defeat of Florida two weeks ago and put it in firm control of the SEC East with only three conference games remaining.
2. Oklahoma State. The No. 12 Cowboys (5-0) come out of an open date to contend with testy back-to-back road games, starting with Saturday’s trip to Texas. The No. 25 Longhorns are coming off building a 21-point lead on Oklahoma, only to lose on a touchdown in the closing seconds. Does Oklahoma State get an angry Texas bunch? Or one wallowing a week after a loss to its archrival? Either way, it’s a significant game in the Big 12 race, especially with Oklahoma State’s visit to Iowa State looming next week.
3. Georgia. The Bulldogs (6-0) have allowed just 33 points this season, and even before Alabama’s loss to Texas A&M, there was a case for Georgia as the nation’s top team since it has largely breezed through its opposition. Unbeaten Kentucky might be the Bulldogs’ stiffest remaining challenge, and getting through the day unscathed increases the likelihood of clinching the SEC East in another game or two.
4a. Pittsburgh and 4b. Virginia Tech. It’s close to impossible to truly identify a game of significance in the ACC’s chaotic Coastal Division. But the Panthers (4-1, 1-0) and the Hokies (3-2, 1-0) are the only teams on that side of the ACC without a league loss, and four of the other five have at least two setbacks. Saturday’s winner in Blacksburg, then, probably sets itself up as the best bet at midseason to claim the division.
5. Texas-El Paso. The Miners are 5-1, which means they’ve won as many games in 2021 as they did in the previous four seasons combined (5-39). They were more competitive last season, coach Dana Dimel’s third in El Paso, so this isn’t out-of-nowhere improvement. And the five teams they’ve defeated are a combined 5-26, so it hasn’t been the most arduous schedule. Still, the Miners are seeking their first bowl berth since 2014, and a victory at home (where they’ve won five in a row) over Louisiana Tech could very well lock that up.
1. RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State (913 yards, 9 TDs rushing; 4 catches, 30 yards, 1 TD receiving). Walker trampled Rutgers for 233 yards and a school-record 94-yard touchdown run last week, his second 200-yard game of the season. He and the Spartans get Indiana next. (Last week: 2)
2. QB Bryce Young, Alabama (1,734 yards, 20 TDs, 3 INTs passing). It’s not as if Young was bad in the Crimson Tide’s loss at Texas A&M, but his 28-for-48, 369-yard day with three touchdowns and an interception was his least efficient outing this season. (LW: 1)
3. QB Matt Corral, Mississippi (1,497 yards, 12 TDs, 0 INTs passing; 255 yards, 8 TDs rushing). The Rebel star has thrown 146 passes without a pick this season, a fact he has to especially savor after a clean day against Arkansas a year after throwing six interceptions against the Razorbacks. (LW: 4)
4. RB Bijan Robinson, Texas (789 yards, 8 TDs rushing; 11 catches, 169 yards, 2 TDs receiving). Tough to knock Robinson for his showing in the Red River Whatchamacallit. He had 20 carries for 137 yards and a touchdown, a performance that bumped his season per-carry average up to 6.3 yards an attempt. (LW: 3)
5. QB Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati (1,304 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs passing; 104 yards, 3 TDs rushing). There is a three-pronged path to Ridder earning at least a Heisman finalist nod. One, the Bearcats stay undefeated. Check. Two, he puts up strong numbers weekly, especially now that Cincinnati is into league play. Going 22 of 30 for 259 yards and three touchdowns against Temple counts. And it wouldn’t hurt if power conference stars have some rough days.
6. QB Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh (1,731 yards, 19 TDs, 1 INT passing; 142 yards, 2 TDs rushing). No change in this spot as Pickett and the Panthers enjoyed an open date. To close out the month, he’ll face Virginia Tech, Clemson and Miami, a stretch that could very well enhance Pickett’s hopes. (LW: 6)