Ed Orgeron's reinvention (and Joe Burrow's arrival) has Tigers back in national title contention
Ever since he was handed the reigns to his dream job as LSU head coach in 2016, Ed Orgeron has understood that how he ultimately will be judged in his home state will come down to how well he does against one foe each year: Alabama. The barrel-chested Cajun knows this because he's brought it up time after time who the measuring stick in the SEC, and nationally, is.
He's done it in press conferences and done it after losses. It's been refreshing, really, for a coach to acknowledge the, well, elephant in the room and the fact that there was no hiding from the 0-8 mark the Tigers had posted against their division rival dating back to the 2012 title game. Orgeron was only in charge for three such contests but coming into Saturday's showdown be he knew where the gap was and, most importantly, had a plan to fix it this season in a manner that wasn't just limited to one recruit, one schematic shift or one new game plan wrinkle alone.
The end result was so far the most impactful result of the 2019 regular season: LSU 46-41 over their old tormentor in their own house. The 9-6 win in overtime from 2011 this was not, but it was a very modern Game of the Century given all the twists and turns involved in a contest where it felt like every snap was just dripping with drama.
And in the end perhaps the most satisfying thing for a Gatorade-soaked Orgeron to realize had to be that this was no fluke, the Tigers were just better.
"It's been a long time coming. We felt all week that we were the better football team," he said after the game. "We said it on Monday to our football team but we said we're going to have to go out and prove it. We proved it today.
"When I got on the plane to come here I felt like we finally had the tools that we need, got the players that we need, and got the coaching staff that we need to beat these guys."
You could see in the exuberance afterward that the moment was almost reminiscent of Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers getting the monkey off their backs in 1994, first beating the rival Dallas Cowboys and then eventually winning the Super Bowl. Maybe more impressive for the Tigers was the fact that this team wasn't afraid of the Crimson Tide like so many others have been. It's hard to find many examples other than Clemson recently of teams that have that kind confidence when staring across from Nick Saban and company but LSU had it and that stems directly from their head man.
It also underscores how far Orgeron has come over the years as a coach. He's always had the reputation as a top-notch recruiter and good developer of defensive line talent but the in-game management and general day-to-day running of a program never did click in his first stint at Ole Miss, which had some moments but never could break through with him in charge.
Orgeron, to his credit, didn't sit back and move onto another gig by wondering "what if?" Instead, he meticulously examined what went wrong, why and how to change. I recall talking with him back when he was put in charge at USC about just how much he relished the chance to prove people wrong and show just how far he had come from the days in Oxford.
Though he didn't get the permanent gig with the Trojans that may have turned out to be a blessing as it led him to his true calling in Baton Rouge. The door opened when Les Miles was let go and Orgeron not only stepped through, he ran through it and ripped his shirt off again.
What's truly been impressive is just how much he's willing to change while still staying true to his vision for the program. After all, it was just two years ago that LSU lost at home to Troy. While that was a pretty good Sun Belt squad at the time, it also set off warning bells. That prompted him to elevate longtime confident Steve Ensminger as offensive coordinator but go hard after Joe Burrow in the transfer market to finally fix the one position that has held the team back for years.
Then last year's shutout at the hands of Alabama prompted him to go deep in his network of coaching friends to find a little-known member of the New Orleans Saints staff. It's impressive how he plucked passing game coordinator Joe Brady out of obscurity just down the highway to help energize the offense. It's not like he was a hot-shot offensive coordinator (been there, done that with Matt Canada) or stud up-and-coming assistant, Brady was just a graduate assistant under Joe Moorhead three years ago and was catching passes at William & Mary the last time LSU beat Alabama.
Now he might be the Broyles Award winner for his work coaching up the receiving corps, working with the quarterback and generally turning the offense into one of the nation's best.
Speaking of that signal-caller, Burrow's rise has been equally as shocking. The Ohio native was an instant upgrade during his first year as a starter but now he's at an entirely different level entirely. His ability to scramble (insert sneaky fast or other snarky comments) has been key in moving the chains and there's been no big shot down the field that he doesn't want to throw and, generally, complete. His decision-making is already several levels better than 2018 and, given his measurables, it seemed only a matter of time before the NFL scouts finally came around.
Though the No. 1 overall pick might be a bit in the moment of this recent run, winning the Heisman Trophy isn't as he's the prohibitive favorite for the award right now — something few even inside the Tigers' football facilities could have seen coming.
Add it all up between Orgeron's reinvention and his championship-caliber QB (the coach's words Saturday night) and we might finally be on track for some new blood in the College Football Playoff. LSU is no stranger to winning it all but the CFP has, especially recently, generally been limited to Alabama and Clemson trading blows between each other. Ohio State is a regular in the final four and Oklahoma has been too.
Now we might have somebody ready to crash the party and inject some new life into things at the end of the season. There's still a long way to go between now and the semifinals, or even that elusive trip to Atlanta, but LSU is on the right path once again after years of promise.
"We've got to see where this leads us. We took a big step in beating Alabama," Orgeron said. "We're where we need to be."
And that's right at the top of the college football world at the moment.
Six other notes from a wild weekend in the sport:
2. The boat has been rowed
The tilt in Tuscaloosa may have been the main course on Saturday but the appetizer in the Twin Cities was just as high stakes and exciting to watch as Minnesota proved plenty of people wrong in knocking off Penn State. The Gophers were discounted plenty coming in due to their lackluster schedule and the fact that they began the year coming ever so close to starting out 0-3 instead of 3-0.
But it's been a real credit for P.J. Fleck and his staff for not only making the right adjustments but getting the team playing better with each passing week. There's a real identity on both sides of the ball now for this team and beyond everybody's favorite slogan that is always apt in the land of 10,000 lakes, this is a program that has gotten better each and every week in 2019.
So when Minnesota jumped out to a big lead and held on for a win that prompted a field storming and some crowd surfing from the head coach, it wasn't as big of a surprise to those who had been following along closely as it was for those just now tuning in to see an 8-0 squad face off against another.
"This team's been through so much on the field, off the field, through the last three years," Fleck said after the game. "This team has heart. It has courage. It has character. It's got an unbelievable culture. They found a way. The whole season's been highs, lows, but we found a way to win and that was the biggest thing."
The victory moved the team to 9-0 for the first time since '04 (that's 1904) and was their first home win over a top-five team since 1977 — three years before Fleck was even born. It also ended a 13-game losing streak against ranked teams and made their dreams of a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game (and potentially the Rose Bowl after that) one step closer to reality. They'll enter another big game against Iowa on Saturday with a two-game lead in the division and while it looked like Paul Bunyan's Axe against Wisconsin might determine who wins the Big Ten West, things might be decided beforehand.
That's a testament to how quickly Fleck has turned things around and blended his relentless energy with the hard work inherent in the program. There are a few household names on this team but guys like Antoine Winfield Jr. or Tyler Johnson or Rashod Bateman or Tanner Morgan have stepped up every time they've been asked to. Then there seems to be more than a few others that come out of nowhere to turn in a critical play when needed. That's a mark of a special team putting together a special run, which is certainly where we're at with this one.
It's been a dream season for the Gophers so far and even if Saturday winds up as the high point, it will still be a campaign that should be about far more than just rowing the boat given what they've accomplished in beating Penn State and making this incredible run.
3. Baylor survives trip to the Metroplex, OU holds on to set up title preview
As fun as some of the mega-matchups in Week 11 were, the Big 12 did not go quietly into the night despite being a bit overshadowed coming in.
You can start in Fort Worth where Baylor remained undefeated by the slimmest of margins in topping rival TCU 29-23 in triple overtime. We knew the Bears had a good defense but they were matched on nearly every snap by the Horned Frogs until the very end.
Kicker John Mayers came up huge once again in booting a 51-yarder to send the game to extra frames and that same defense really came through to pick up an offense that seemed to struggle all day long until Denzel Mims went wild in overtime. This team is as scrappy as they come and head coach Matt Rhule has not only done a phenomenal job in building the program up to this point, but he's hit all the right buttons in-game as well. It hasn't always been pretty to watch — not even close outside of some non-conference blowouts — but here BU is right in the thick of the conference title race and suddenly nationally relevant.
Now all eyes will be on Waco this Saturday as Oklahoma comes to town. The Sooners are still on the fringes of the national title discussion but it has to be concerning for Lincoln Riley that their inability to finish games has really been exposed the past few weeks. You saw a few cracks in the armor against Texas and then a full-blown meltdown against Kansas State before rallying to make things respectable. Then Iowa State pushed them right to the brink after they remarkably only scored once after halftime in a game that looked primed to dominate.
Turnovers have been a particularly thorny issue and Jalen Hurts' ill-advised interception was one of the most bone-headed plays of the entire weekend. They got lucky the defense showed up just in time on the two-point conversion but what once looked like a freight train of a team in September and early October is now very mortal.
We're likely in for a preview of what's to come from AT&T Stadium in December down in Waco in the game of the week but it definitely looked like we weren't going to get the caliber of game many in Big 12 country were hoping for until the very end of both games.
4. Coach of the Year race is hot and heavy
As we get later and later into the season, the race for awards tends to heat up between contenders as the games get magnified and the pressure ratchets up. While we have an interesting Heisman chase and a handful of compelling pursuits of things like the Biletnikoff Award, the most intriguing battle just might be between the three head coaches discussed above for Coach of the Year honors.
While it's possible that somebody like Mario Cristobal or a Mike Norvell/Ken Niumatalolo get involved prior to December rolling around, it looks like a three-man race between Orgeron, Fleck, and Rhule for most voters.
And boy is it hard to decide.
Orgeron's candidacy is obviously built on the back of this incredibly successful run the Tigers are on, not just beating Alabama but very much looking like the team to beat for the whole thing in January. The offensive reinvention the program has undergone through savvy recruiting, hiring and development isn't to be understated and one of the most difficult things to do in the sport is to go from very good to great — a leap Coach O appears to have his team making.
That said, the way Fleck has brought Minnesota from off the radar to national relevance is just as impressive. His starting quarterback was injured in fall camp and he was coming off a season in which he had to fire his defensive coordinator just in the hopes of a turnaround to make a bowl game. That was the springboard into this season, where the Gophers went from plucky underdog story to full-on division contender.
The front-runner though just might be Rhule, not just as the result of this season's run and what he's done between the lines but for what he has cleaned up in three years in charge. He had virtually no recruiting class coming off the Art Briles scandal-laden squad in 2016 and the 1-11 mark his first year was reflective of playing so many freshmen who had no business being in Big 12 games. But the tide started to turn last year and everything has aligned for this 9-0 mark in 2019.
As hard as it is to split hairs now, that case will be made even more difficult going forward if they all keep winning. Generally you start to get a consensus around one guy by this point and they wind up as a pretty easy pick come December but something says that won't be the case in a photo finish this year.
5. Arkansas joins the buyout club
The talk that Arkansas would make a move and let Chad Morris go started well before the Razorbacks fell to Western Kentucky but the 35-7 halftime lead the Hilltoppers had sure felt like the final nail in the coffin for their head coach.
And while just about everybody was calling for a change to be made in the wake of losing to not one but two Group of 5 opponents at home this year, there was at least a little shock at the definitive way that AD Hunter Yuracheck moved on Sunday to confirm that all of the recent losing will bring about a third head coach in four years by the time 2020 rolls around.
It's a good example that for everything seeming to line up in a coaching search, once the bullets start firing things can go south in a hurry. Morris' teams at SMU may not have had a great record for the most part but watching them before he took over and after saw noticeable improvement. The offense put up plenty of points and the roster was overhauled to focus much more on in-state talent (something successor Sonny Dykes has embraced as well). Those Texas ties, offensive mind, and experience at a big-time program like Clemson made Morris look like a natural fit with the Razorbacks even if transitioning away from Bret Bielema's system might produce a few hiccups.
Only Arkansas never improved on the field under Morris and the roster, while supplanted by transfers and a solid first full recruiting class, never came close to being capable of winning in the SEC (which of course they never did the past two years). Heck, they were underwater against Group of 5 teams that came to town and even sanction-riddled Ole Miss seemed to be noticeably ahead of where the Hogs were. Expectations from the program's supporters have been a bit realistic given the pecking order in the SEC West but everybody agrees that things can't be this bad in Fayetteville.
We'll see where the search goes but Arkansas will have to battle perceptions of where things are right now plus the fact that a higher profile job like Florida State is already open and others (USC?) could become an option in the near future. There might not be a ton of turnover on the carousel this year which helps, but this isn't a marquee gig despite a likely $4 million salary and the SEC cache.
Memphis' Mike Norvell is likely the name most connect to the gig for obvious reasons. He's a Natural State native, coaches in the same region and is having plenty of success. He probably could have had the gig when Morris was originally hired so one would be right in questioning just how much he values a move home given the state of things. He'll be a name that is likely to get traction for higher-profile gigs so how realistic a tie-up could be remains to be seen.
Matt Campbell is also likely to come up but he might have a better path to winning games where's at and like Norvell should be in the mix for top-tier gigs this offseason and beyond. If Arkansas smartly looks not for just a big name but a true program builder, Tulane's Willie Fritz would tick off a lot of boxes and it's only a matter of time before some SEC school hires UAB's Bill Clark so why not the Hogs? Arkansas State has fallen off a bit this season but Blake Anderson remains a quality backup option if the search goes haywire too and would bring plenty of toughness to a program lacking it.
But the real question being asked among coaches and others in the industry about this opening is all about Gus Malzahn. It's no secret of the effort made to lure him from the Plains two years ago and a similar pursuit could be made again. How receptive the local could be to such a move won't be known for a few more weeks but there's a chance that the money could get lined up on both ends to make everybody happy and hit the reset button in both places. Auburn is by far a better gig but it's also one of a constant hot seat.
Some might say the same about Arkansas now given how they've moved on from Morris so quickly but it sure seemed like a move that was going to be made shortly anyway and Saturday's humiliating loss only served as the final push needed.
6. Pac-12 refs make headlines again
Lost amid all the fun on Saturday was undoubtedly a game whose viewership was minuscule and produced a result that didn't have much of an effect on the larger picture. We're talking of course about Cal's 33-20 win over Washington State.
There was actually a lot going on in this one as the Bears broke out of their inept offensive slump the past few weeks to look quite solid on that side of the ball while the Cougars' woes continued to the point of Mike Leach needing to call his team out by saying they were frauds after the loss. But for as generally unmemorable as the game itself was beyond those points, there was a very real issue that has the Pac-12 once again suffering from an avalanche of negative press regarding their officiating.
The conference office issued a mea culpa on Sunday about the most egregious error from the game (there were others, don't worry, just not to this level), confirming they had suspended one referee for somehow announcing a 15-yard hands to the face penalty... on the wrong team. The wrong call happened early in the third quarter and was not only flat wrong but something that went uncorrected because the crew then allowed Wazzu to run an offensive play.
Pac-12 fans are no strangers to moments like this and it's not really a league game if one can't use the #pac12refs hashtag on social media or post an old picture of two conference officials who were pointing in opposite directions to signal in a play. Now there was still plenty of time for the Cougs to recover from such a gaffe on Saturday night but the entire episode still is hard to believe in this day and age and just reinforces how commissioner Larry Scott and company still haven't made meaningful strides to get their zebras better between the lines.
After all, it's one thing for this to happen and another entirely for most of the conference to just shrug their shoulders and wonder how they got lucky that it didn't happen to them.
The issue isn't totally unique to the Pac-12 as every league in college football has fans, coaches and administrators believing their officials are the worst of the lot. It's a hard job no doubt and it's gotten even harder with 4K and slow-mo making every error look instantly worse on TV broadcasts. This is the one area where the sport hasn't made any meaningful progress with in the BCS/playoff era and it's time all the commissioners to take that seriously or risk losing confidence from their stakeholders even more than they have.
The easiest solution that this column has advocated for before? Just nationalize officiating and take it out of the conference's hands completely. Why does there have to be an ACC replay crew and a Big 12 on-field set of officials? Do we really need referees from the Pac-12, Mountain West or SEC or anybody anymore?
No, we don't. It's time once again to call for the breakup of each conference overseeing things to centralize command — perhaps even in the hands of the dreaded NCAA. It could allow for referees to move up and down the pecking order in a quicker manner that rewards those making the right calls while punishing others. It would also eliminate (or at least reduce) any accusations of bias or conspiracy theories about calls being made or reversed as a result of the conference office's wishes.
Maybe more than anything, it would be the biggest PR win a league could possibly have with fans. Those screams at the TV or in person at games could be directed toward the folks in Indianapolis and the hashtags calling out officials from various leagues could be a thing of the past. Those mentions from the SEC's Twitter account alone could dry up overnight and at least be directed to an organization that is already vilified.
That's a win the Pac-12 desperately needs to have on this subject and they are far from the only ones that could benefit from it too.
7. Illinois' incredible comeback
Fear. The. Beard.
We saw a lot of things in Week 11 but few will come close to being as head-turning as Illinois' stunning Michigan State with a comeback for the ages to become bowl eligible for the first time under head coach Lovie Smith.
The Illini trailed 28-3 at one point in the game and the 25-point comeback was the largest in program history. The school noted that win probability for the Spartans hovered around 99.6 percent entering the fourth quarter but that Illinois outscored them 27-3 in that final frame alone. The orange and blue have now won twice on the road in Big Ten play for the first time in nine seasons.
What's wild is Illinois did so despite a red zone interception and a missed extra point, utilizing a pick-six, a fumble recovery, and a flag on fourth down among other things down the stretch to fly the "W' many in the region are used to putting up. If you ever wanted to see two teams nearly try to hand each other a victory late though, this one was it.
In the end though, Smith's magnificent beard has somehow managed to put a cherry on top of this impressive month-long turnaround to change the trajectory on what was thought to be a lame-duck lost year coming into 2019. While it's not quite the Rose Bowl run from a dozen years ago, this program is finally out of the depths they were once in — with one low point coming just this year when they lost to Eastern Michigan at home.
But like they did Saturday, there's some impressive fight in this group. A number of key transfers have come in and have helped not only upgrade the team's talent level but brought a no-quit attitude even when things get difficult. A month ago they made things interesting against Nebraska and Michigan and used that to help inspire enough confidence to fuel an upset of then-No. 6 Wisconsin. Wins against Purdue and Rutgers followed leading into hopes that maybe this group can get over the hump and to the postseason.
But few could have seen a win over MSU coming and especially not like that. This rebuild Smith undertook has been slow and steady and it's finally paying off for the Illini as they've notched two signature wins in the past four weeks. It's hard to believe how quickly things have come together but sometimes when you turn the corner, you can do so in a big way.
Just as Sparty, who seems to be going in the opposite direction at the moment as a result.
Tweet of the Week
Play of the Week
Stat of the Week
Arkansas paid a combined $3 million to lose to San Jose State and Western Kentucky this season.
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Joe Burrow, LSU
Team of the Week: Illinois
Goat of the Week: Chad Morris, Arkansas
Heisman Five: 1. Joe Burrow (LSU), 2. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 3. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 4. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 5. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama)
Projected Playoff: 1. LSU, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Oregon
Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Minnesota vs. Utah, Sugar Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Alabama, Orange Bowl — Wake Forest vs. Georgia, Cotton Bowl — Florida vs. Memphis
Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
2. Ohio State
11. Penn State
Best of the rest: Notre Dame, Texas, SMU, Indiana, Cincinnati, Navy, Iowa, Iowa State, Boise State
Minnesota at Iowa
P.J. Fleck has been fantastic at getting his team focused on the task at hand and getting better on a weekly basis to turn the Gophers into one of the biggest stories around. Unfortunately, this is a prime letdown spot against a motivated Hawkeyes squad that has had a history of knocking off highly ranked teams at Kinnick. The Pick: Iowa -2
Oklahoma at Baylor
Both of these teams nearly handed their opponents a win last week but managed to enter this Big 12 title game preview ready to rumble in Waco. For as balanced and good as the Bears have been, especially on defense, something says they get humbled a bit by the Sooners as they try to impress the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. Turnovers will be key either way. The Pick: Oklahoma -9.5
Georgia at Auburn
The Bulldogs have their issues on offense but they've been improving on both sides of the ball and have been far more consistent than the Tigers have. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry has tilted toward UGA but this has been a strange season so of course, it wouldn't be shocking if Auburn pulls off the upset on the Plains to induce a bit more SEC chaos. The Pick: Auburn +3
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.