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LSU Football: Tigers Go Back to the Drawing Board After Disappointing 2020 Campaign

Ed Orgeron is trying to forget the 2020 season — while remembering the valuable lessons he learned
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The celebration of LSU’s 2019 national championship lasted less than one game into the 2020 season. And for Tiger fans, it’s still hard to decide which pill was harder to swallow — that a program fresh off one of the greatest seasons in the history of the sport looked so inept, or that it was Mike Leach’s Mississippi State offense bringing LSU back to earth in Baton Rouge in his very first game with the Bulldogs.

Since the creation of the BCS in 1998, no defending champion had opened the following season with a loss until the 2020 Tigers. Granted, LSU lacked the luxury of college football’s usual warm-up opener against a Group of 5 or FCS school, but the Bulldogs weren’t supposed to offer so much resistance. Yet in Leach’s debut, former Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello broke the league record for passing yards in a game with 623, and Bo Pelini’s return to LSU as defensive coordinator was instantly an obvious disaster. The Tigers never regained their championship swagger, finishing a pedestrian 5–5.

“The system we have in place works,” LSU head coach Ed Orgeron says. “This is LSU. We have great relationships that have been built over time, and then when the players see the results of 2019 and the development of those players, and now their results in the NFL, it shows how unique and special this place is.”

Orgeron is entirely committed to wiping 2020 from the nation’s collective college football memory while still implementing a variety of painful lessons learned during it. The ’19 Tigers were literal world-beaters, but that invincibility disappeared the moment the confetti fell in New Orleans. Following LSU’s title win over Clemson, more than 30 players left the program, many of them entering the NFL Draft, including Heisman winner Joe Burrow.

Compounding the difficulties, Orgeron also lost his offensive and defensive architects, as passing game coordinator Joe Brady joined the Carolina Panthers and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda became Baylor’s head coach. Orgeron replaced the pair with NFL veteran Scott Linehan and Pelini. Neither lasted past the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The LSU defense allowed 40 or more points in half of their games, while the offense disappeared in key games vs. Auburn (11 points), Alabama (17) and Texas A&M (7).

You might’ve seen a quote from Orgeron bubble up this offseason, asserting that he made a point to interview his new 2021 coordinators, implying he hadn’t done so the last time. Without official confirmation, it’s widely believed that Orgeron was referring to Linehan and Pelini, formerly the Tigers’ DC under Les Miles, who returned to Baton Rouge from a head-coaching job at FCS Youngstown State.

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Interviews (or the lack thereof) aside, Coach O certainly addressed his program’s shortcomings when he rebooted the 2021 Tigers.

“I put the priority during the interview on the players ... listening to [coaches] presentations and seeing how they would relate to our players,” Orgeron says. “During the interview and evaluating candidates, the ability to relate to our players was the most important thing. By their energy, by their experience, by their youth, by their style. They made it a point that they want to invest in the players. That was big for me.”

The Tigers will try to clean the slate again in 2021 with Jake Peetz calling plays and Daronte Jones rebuilding the defense. Both are NFL vets, a résumé item Orgeron has focused on in recent years as he sells high-end talent on LSU not just as a winning program, but also as an NFL training ground.

Peetz’s bona fides are obvious: He comes to Baton Rouge from the Carolina Panthers, where he worked with Brady on Matt Rhule’s staff. And given the Tigers’ success adapting Brady’s NFL renovation of the passing game for Burrow, it makes sense that Orgeron went back to that well. After a long spin on the coaching carousel, the Tigers hired Jones after some notable refusals, including Marcus Freeman (formerly of Cincinnati, now at Notre Dame) and former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, who chose Auburn over LSU to resume his coordinator career.

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In that way, Peetz and Jones are symbolic of Orgeron’s time as LSU head coach — one is the next man up in a successful offensive system under O, and the other is a deep bench pick due to LSU’s history of embattled coordinators (Pelini and former OC Matt Canada are the obvious names).

But despite the fact that LSU will now deploy new play-callers on both sides of the ball for the third straight year, Orgeron’s insistence on a player-focused approach makes sense because the Tigers have maintained recruiting consistency no matter what the coaching staff has looked like.

“The one thing to remember is that recruiting is done well in advance, and LSU was still riding that national title wave in high schools when they lost games in 2020,” 247Sports national recruiting analyst Bud Elliott says.

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“A lot of the signees in their most recent class, they’d been on them since they were sophomores and juniors. Those players saw the path Burrow took, transferring to LSU and leading that team. They really weren’t fazed by the downturn on the field. And I think LSU successfully sold their losses as [being due to] the pandemic and the number of guys who went pro. And losing guys to the pros is actually a great recruiting sales pitch,” Elliott says.

The Tigers have landed top-5 signing classes the last three cycles and opened the 2022 race ranked No. 3 in mid-April by 247Sports. That three-year time span encompasses both the very good (a national title) and the very bad (off-field Title IX investigations into the athletic department). One potential explanation for consistency through such turbulence? Orgeron himself, a recruiter above all else.

“Their issue now is more about building a program and not just a team. But the reaction doesn’t necessarily happen as fast as it does in the media unless someone is thought to be on the hot seat. And that’s not a conversation happening publicly at LSU,” Elliott says.

A year ago, the conversation around Orgeron was whether or not he could craft a functional rival to Nick Saban’s Alabama machine on a semi-frequent basis. One .500 campaign and an offseason of athletic department scandal have Orgeron further away from “multi-title contender,” but not yet in the same breath as Gene Chizik, himself a defensive coach turned national title winner in 2010 but fired two seasons later. You can’t consider Orgeron as the next Chizik — yet — because of his consistency in recruiting.

Orgeron, naturally, has repositioned ’20 as something less than a total failure while remaining keenly aware of how tempered ’21 expectations will be in the cutthroat SEC West, especially since Bama has snatched yet another national title.

“The biggest thing is that every year is different,” Orgeron says. “Patience is very important. Look at how we were developing our team throughout the year even dealing with opt-outs and injuries. We played our best games at the end of the year in wins at Florida and against Ole Miss. Every year we want to be an ascending team, playing our best as the year goes on. So the finish of 2020 was the start of 2021.”

— Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) for Athlon Sports' 2021 SEC Football Magazine.

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