Two years ago, Ed Orgeron coached LSU to the national championship. Saturday night when the Tigers take on Kentucky at Kroger Field, Coach O may be coaching for his job.
Think that’s a stretch? Gene Chizik would beg to differ. With Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton at quarterback, Chizik coached Auburn to a 14-0 record and the 2010 national title. Then Newton departed for the NFL. Two years and an 11-14 record later, Chizik was out of a job.
Orgeron is sliding down a similar path. With Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow as quarterback, LSU went 15-0 in 2019. Then Burrow departed for the NFL. Since then, LSU is 8-7 overall, 6-6 in the SEC, including 3-2 and 1-1 this season.
The boo birds were out in Baton Rouge last Saturday as the Tigers lost at home to Auburn for the first time since 1999 and looked bad doing it. Miscommunications. Wasted timeouts. Disorganized play. Up 19-10 heading into the final frame, LSU lost 24-19 to first-year Auburn coach Bryan Harsin.
Afterward, Orgeron didn’t help matters by pointing fingers at his staff and players. By Monday, he had reversed field, opening his weekly press conference by saying, “Ultimately, I’m responsible for the performance of this team. I always will be responsible.”
Big question: How much longer will Coach O be responsible?
“Around the college sports industry, the LSU job opening has evolved from a possibility to a near inevitability,” wrote Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel. “If Orgeron survives and keeps his job in 2022, it’d be one of the best comebacks in a career hallmarked by them.”
Truth be told, with his gravely voice, thick Louisiana accent and habit of going shirtless, Orgeron has garnered the reputation of a great recruiter whose head coaching skills continually fall subject to question. It happened at Ole Miss, where Coach O went 10-25 in three seasons (2005-07). It happened at USC, where Orgeron was 6-2 as interim coach but was passed over for the permanent title. It’s happening now at LSU, where Oregron took over after Les Miles was fired in 2016 — after Miles won the national title in 2007, it should be noted.
“It’s stunning that this program has gone downhill this fast,” said Ron Higgins, editor of Tiger Rag magazine, “especially since the last three recruiting classes have ranked in the top five nationally,”
So what’s gone wrong? Start with bad coordinators. Both offensive coordinator Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda left after the title season. Brady became OC of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Aranda became the head coach at Baylor. Oregon failed to find suitable replacements. Scott Linehan didn’t work out on offense. Former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini was a disaster on defense.
After cleaning house, Orgeron dialed back to 2019. He hired Jake Peetz to run his offense. Peetz was Brady’s quarterbacks coach with the Panthers. And after being turned down by Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (now at Notre Dame) and New Orleans Saints’ defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, Orgeron hired Minnesota Vikings secondary coach Daronte Jones to run the defense. Jones had previously coached with Aranda.
So far, the results have failed to impress. LSU is 65th nationally in total defense; 83rd in total offense. Get this: The Tigers are a dreadful 128th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing offense.
“His failure to hire quality coordinators on both sides of the ball has negated LSU’s advantage in sheer talent,” Higgins said. “The fact LSU has repeatedly made the same mistakes in the first five games has not only made Ed’s seat hot, but it’s starting to melt.”
The next five promise to turn up the heat. Kentucky is undefeated, ranked 16th and a 3.5-point favorite Saturday. After Saturday, LSU faces No. 20 Florida at home, No. 17 Ole Miss on the road and No. 1 Alabama on the road before returning home to play No. 13 Arkansas.
“Ed Orgeron has made a specialty of responding to losses,” wrote Scott Rabalais, sports columnist for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, this week. “With his seat warming, he’ll have to do it again.”
Starting Saturday night in Lexington.
John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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