LSU Football: The Blueprint for Building the Perfect Season

Ed Orgeron & Co. created a template for the greatest single season in history. Is it also the template for a dynasty?

Pause for a moment, just one last time, and savor how good LSU's 2019 season was. Feel free to mount an argument that it was one of the best in college football history, or maybe THE best. First and foremost, the Tigers rang up a 15–0 record (a first in the SEC), beating seven teams ranked in the Top 25 at the end of the season along the way (including a whopping five of the final Top 10). They ducked no one and vanquished all comers, including the defending national champion and the 2018 runner-up.

 

Heisman winner Joe Burrow redefined elite quarterback play, setting an SEC single-season record for total yardage and breaking the FBS record for total touchdowns (65!) in a season. The Tigers' effort redefined their own standards — breaking records for touchdowns in a game and yards, completions and completion percentage in a single season and shattering single-game and total playoff records for scoring and yardage.

 

Now it's done, and with the mass exodus of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (to Baylor), lead play-caller Joe Brady (to the Carolina Panthers) and key contributors including Burrow, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and safety Grant Delpit, it's time to start over.

 

So now what? As recently as a year ago, fans and media were still conducting a public referendum on head coach Ed Orgeron's viability as a program manager. Now, with LSU's first national championship since 2007 and the arresting style with which the offense led the way, there's zero argument about Coach O's viability. Ed's locked in to the tune of an extension running through 2026 at $7 million annually. This is his program, and the Tigers are molded in his idiosyncratic image.


The only question remaining is whether these Tigers were a single-season phenomenon, resulting from the divine meeting of Joe Brady's NFL acumen and Burrow's arm (and feet), or if this is the blueprint for a potential championship dynasty, the first in the SEC outside of Nick Saban or Urban Meyer.

 

It's possible we'll never see a single season as awe-inspiring as the 2019 LSU Tigers. But here's why Orgeron's program has set a template for building future champions.

 

The CEO Model in the SEC

 

For the better part of two decades, the coaching style of the Southeastern Conference has been all but dominated by Saban, Meyer and their coaching trees. In broad strokes, Saban-Meyer is a system defined by the signature style of the head coach, both in on-field scheme and off-field persona. This identity becomes uniform throughout the staff. In Saban's case, his defensive style and micromanaging have informed the practice of every other part of the program. Offensive coordinators have adapted to him, as have personnel, development and recruitment.

 

Then came Dabo Swinney. The Bama alum's success at Clemson has been predicated on what rival coaches have dubbed "CEO style" of management. Swinney is as hyper-focused on recruitment and development as Saban or Kirby Smart, but his coordinators are individualistic in style and management. More importantly, they're left alone to run their systems, creating head coach-style fiefdoms on either side of the ball. In business terms, the head coach as CEO empowers his department heads to get results their way, usually stepping in only on macro decisions.

 

Suddenly Chad Morris and Brent Venables became household names in college football. Orgeron was watching, especially — and more importantly — when Swinney paid them like head coaches, breaking the million-dollar annual salary mark for a P5 coordinator. The combination of freedom, a paycheck better than most head-coaching jobs and access to a consistent stock of the best players in the country created national title results — and consistency — in the South Carolina Upstate.

 

From the moment he pitched former AD Joe Alleva on his candidacy for the permanent head-coaching job, the then-interim head coach Orgeron wanted to replicate Clemson's model in the SEC. Orgeron's connections in the industry allowed him to pitch big names — initially it was retaining former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, whom Les Miles had hired away from Wisconsin, and then Alabama offensive coordinator and current Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin.

 

When Kiffin took the head-coaching job at Florida Atlantic — a move some in the LSU program believe was encouraged by Saban to prevent an in-division poaching — Orgeron paired Aranda with NC State offensive coordinator and Broyles Award finalist Matt Canada, a journeyman play-caller specializing in pre-snap shifts and motions to break defensive assignments.

 

The pairing of Orgeron and Canada in 2017 was a disaster. The offense sputtered in losses to Mississippi State and Troy, and media reports surfaced that Orgeron, stuck in a pattern of micromanaging that he had picked up as head coach at Ole Miss, was interfering with the structure of the offense. But after handing the OC title back to longtime loyal assistant Steve Ensminger, Orgeron didn't retreat from the concept — he hired Brady, a former Saints offensive assistant, after an offseason presentation.

 

That marriage worked so well that the entire industry of college coaching is taking a second look at pro offensive concepts previously thought unworkable at the collegiate level. And it's the same methodology Orgeron used to hire 2020's coordinators — veteran NFL coach Scott Linehan as co-OC with Ensminger, and former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini (a former LSU DC under Miles) to take over from Aranda.

 

Orgeron has fostered a culture that many coaches in the industry believe empowers coordinators even more than the Saban-Meyer model does, creating more staff consistency.

 

The New Tradition: Innovation

 

If you had to distill the shortcomings of the Miles era in Baton Rouge to a single issue, most fans would point to his offense. Despite LSU's location in one of the most talent-rich states and regions for recruiting, the Tigers stifled their own progress for years by running an aggressively conservative, dated offensive scheme that wasted its playmakers.

 

"Burrow and that '19 offense is going to be big for the LSU quarterback recruiting, but that being said, LSU's struggles at the position have never really been about recruiting," 24/7 recruiting analyst Barton Simmons says. "It's always been about evaluation and development. They've landed highly regarded prospects; they've just whiffed too many times on picking the right one and giving him a chance to be successful."

 

Miles wanted to win running the ball. That's a noble and just concept, but it's simple logic in the face of the SEC's modern schematic chess. When trends appeared in the sport — spread offenses or hurry-up tempos — the general feeling from Miles was that LSU was too talented to bother with a fad. In actuality, the inverse was becoming true: As teams like Kevin Sumlin's Texas A&M and Gus Malzahn's Auburn exploited Alabama's makeup, the Tide not only learned to adapt defensively (developing faster, lighter linebackers who could work better in space), but they also borrowed those concepts for their own offense.

 

Again, Orgeron was watching. Even with only a few days to prepare, his very first game as head coach of the Tigers featured such revolutionary-to-LSU ideas as passing to set up the run, empty backfields and aggressive "shot" plays on first down. With Miles' roster, Orgeron's first LSU team walloped a bad Missouri team 42–7. The same team that couldn't break 14 points in a loss to Wisconsin went on to score 38 points or more in every one of their regular-season victories that year.

 

"It wasn't anything more than a bunch of us coaches sitting around and saying, ‘OK, what's worked at some other places we've been? How can that fit?' A lot of it could. We knew our guys were capable of more. We knew they wanted it to; right away you could see they wanted a chance. You can't change a system overnight, but you can change attitude and style," Orgeron says.

 

"It was just as simple as, OK, we're always gonna get the ball to our playmakers in space. That's it. That was the big change."

 

None of those changes is particularly notable. After all, teams overhaul their offenses all the time. But those teams aren't LSU, capable of recruiting and developing a level of athleticism and talent that only a few other programs in the entire sport can match. Miles' refusal to adapt on offense had been a self-inflicted penalty. Now Orgeron wanted to push innovation as fast as possible to suit the caliber of players he could recruit.

 

"The players deserve the best in everything we do. That's what we keep in mind when we build facilities and when we recruit, but also when we hire coaches and put in systems. It's not about us," Orgeron says.

 

The result is that a program long considered to be a graveyard for quarterback prospects just turned a transfer from Ohio State into the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. Be it Ensminger, Brady or even during Canada's tenure, the prevailing message has been fundamentally different for LSU: We will embrace innovation on offense. That could make the Tigers an even scarier force in national recruiting.

 

"It used to be possible to scare good skill position players away from them," a rival coordinator says. "You could tell them ‘You're not going to catch a third of the passes there you would here.' Quarterback, forget it. People were watching them in the [2011] national title against Bama, and they couldn't cross the 50. Now it's like none of that ever happened, at least to recruits."

 

Securing the Border

 

Get Orgeron talking about recruiting and branding long enough and he'll inevitably hit on one of his keynote talking points:

 

"Everything we do, we do for the state of Louisiana. It's a privilege and an honor to represent this great state and the great people of Louisiana."

 

Years before Burrow met Brady, Orgeron was hard at work refining his expertise as a statesman. As soon as he could, the new full-time head coach of LSU went after border security, getting into a media spat with outside programs (mostly from Texas) looking to hold joint camps with Louisiana universities in an effort to recruit the state's top talent away.

 

The Cajun from Bayou Lafourche was making a tactical maneuver — LSU's concern was fighting off Texas schools in the west and almost the entire SEC from the east. He requested — or demanded — that Louisiana schools not host camps featuring out-of-state coaches, going so far as to create camps that featured all 11 college football programs in the state of Louisiana.

 

That same offseason, Orgeron solidified his relationship with a key recruit — Gov. John Bel Edwards. Orgeron taped hurricane preparedness videos for Edwards, and as recently as this spring, he was asked to speak at a statewide press conference urging Louisianans to follow social distancing and health guidelines to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

 

The fact that he's tight with the governor and keeps programs like Louisiana Tech and Grambling happy doesn't seem like much, but you have to understand the way Louisiana works: There's only one LSU; one SEC program that rules the entire state. While Nick Saban might be the de facto icon of Alabama, there's still Auburn. Orgeron has the luxury of sitting atop the sole program in a state as talented as its Southeastern counterparts, with undisputed football autonomy.

 

On top of this, Orgeron is a native son. There is no cultural disconnect, only a family atmosphere. We've never experienced a head coach with this much clout and equity in his home state, a state so important to recruiting.

 

"I think people misunderstand sometimes. ... This is just home. You want to always be proud of your home. The people here, this state, they can go through a lot of adversity. Sometimes it can feel like it's always something. But going through that, it connects you. It makes you closer. When we involve [the other Louisiana schools], that can only help the state. It connects us to every part of the state in a way we need as a program. You want to try to be everywhere, but that's hard," Orgeron says.

 

National Branding

 

LSU can now cherry-pick its own talent-rich state as the first and only P5 program at home, but it can also carry its brand from coast to coast. Take a look at LSU's 2020 signing class, the first to experience the full sales pitch of the national championship run and record-setting NFL offense: prospects from Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Texas, Colorado, even Alabama. Their 2021 verbal commitments already include five-star linebacker Raesjon Davis from California powerhouse Mater Dei.

 

"LSU has always had a national brand," Orgeron says. "We would see it when we were out on the road recruiting. Jimmy Johnson once told me when I was first started working for him that the key to success is to get great players. LSU deserves the best, and we will make sure to find them."

 

Orgeron knows exactly why Nick Saban looks so grumpy and restless the second after he hoists a trophy — he instantly wants to parlay it into recruiting. If you need hard evidence that a school is taking advantage of its window as a national champion and extending its dominance, look for national recognition in recruiting.

 

"I wouldn't necessarily say that LSU is more of a national brand in recruiting than the Les Miles era, but I would emphatically say that they are leaning into their national brand more than the Les Miles era," Simmons says. "LSU has always been capable of dipping into Florida, dipping into California, taking some strategic shots nationally, but in 2020 they really canvassed the country in a way they haven't before. I think it's due to a general national push from the major recruiting powers and a mentality of needing to keep pace, and I think it's the competitive nature of Ed Orgeron that drove them to a coast-to-coast approach."

 

With each year, college football loses its sense of regionalism and tribalism — almost every game is available nationwide, and social media platforms allow recruits to communicate with schools anywhere. With that shift comes an urgency for top programs to become national brands, not just revered powerhouses in their particular region. Alabama's last quarterback came from Hawaii, and it's likely that the Tide's next long-term starter will be from California.

 

LSU is not doing anything especially unique, but it's the fact that they're doing it — several schools claim to be a nationally recognized brand, but few can back it up with four- and five-star signees from coast to coast.

 

The Chances Ahead

 

Here's the good news for LSU fans: The playoff era of college football has seen very little turnover at the top. Both Alabama and Clemson have won two national titles since the format was created in 2014. The only other team with a playoff title is Ohio State, which has gone on to appear in the CFP two more times and is considered (if the Big Ten restarts its season) one of the favorites in 2020.

 

In addition, the SEC West has been represented every single year, with the division champion of that league winning the entire playoff half the time. The SEC West is still considered the most competitive and brutal division in the sport, meaning a 2020 LSU roster missing its stars might have little preseason hype as a defending national champion, but there's virtually a guaranteed playoff ticket to the winner of a seven-team race.

 

"Alabama hasn't quit. They haven't died, and anyone who thinks their run is over is a fool," an SEC assistant says. "But the advantage for LSU is a lot like it's been for Clemson these last few years. It's more psychological. You can show your staff, your roster and all the people outside your program that it is possible."

 

— Written by Steven Godfrey for Athlon Sports' 2020 SEC Football Magazine.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @LSUfootball)

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