At one point during his SEC Media Days appearance on Monday, LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron made a distinction that, in some ways, sums up the past 20 years in Baton Rouge.
“We were a very good football team last year,” Orgeron said. “Not a great one.”
That’s a fair statement. Orgeron is nothing if not direct. He immediately followed by saying “we’ve got to take the next step.” Recent history has seen LSU take that step, the step back. The Tigers have won two modern-day national championships, one under Nick Saban and one under Les Miles, and played for a third in 2011 with one of the better college teams of the past decade, only to face a better Alabama team at the end. No one is denying those moments of greatness, just asking two questions: can Orgeron get the Tigers to take that “next step”? And if he does, can he stay there?
Speculation about alternate histories can lead down some wrong paths, but many wise observers feel that if Saban had remained at LSU instead of taking an NFL hiatus, the Tigers — and not Alabama — would be rewriting SEC history right now. There are a few Crimson Tide diehards who will contend that “tradition” would have elevated UA back into contention, but who would be coaching? Dabo Swinney? Clemson hired him as the longest of long shots. Who else?
Miles did a very good job as Saban’s replacement. The recruiting continued to go well — just check the current NFL rosters. His biggest issue, frankly, was having to compete against Saban. It wound up with Miles seemingly out, then back e because of fan opinion, then out again. Orgeron wasn’t the first choice as replacement (Jimbo Fisher was) but he’s got the kind of personality the LSU fans embrace. Yes, when DC announced that it was discontinuing one of its comic-based TV series with a Tweet that said “Swamp Thing Cancelled,” my initial thought was that Coach O had been fired. But last year bought him some time and respect because it included some impressive wins like Georgia, Auburn and Central Florida.
But the question on Monday was that next step. Orgeron reeled off a long list of talented players. The NFL pipeline will keep flowing. He said he would take more personal responsibility for “toughness” in the defensive line. The key, as it has been for a decade, remains the quarterback.
Joe Burrow wasn’t a Heisman contender last year but was serviceable. This year, Orgeron promises more of a spread offense with Burrow becoming more of a run/pass option threat. At least one veteran Louisiana sports writer who had clearly heard similar predictions before and regarded the possibility with the same skepticism as the Area 51 takeover, inquired if this was indeed the year. Orgeron chuckled and replied “it’s real, I’ve seen the playbook.”
For years now, LSU has seemed close, a team that cannot be discounted due to its mighty athleticism. Orgeron seemed more relaxed this year, vowing to block out distractions. But the biggest step will have to made in Tuscaloosa, if this year is going to be different.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt.