Excitement, mystery & trepidation swirl as LSU season opener approaches
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - I love covering all sports. But college football truly is like nothing else. From start to finish Saturdays in the fall are like some natural drug that can deliver an invigorating high. Standing on the field of an SEC stadium on a cool, sunny day in October and watching that massive coliseum fill to the brim with passionate and ravenous fans is captivating. Then the game kicks off and takes that emotion to another level. The bands, the students, the mascots and most importantly the compelling theater and competition...it’s a game like no other.
Each summer we count down to the season. In particular, we anticipate LSU football. As a kid I used to daydream about the games ahead while cutting grass or doing whatever summertime chores I was partaking in during those sweaty days. I thought about the new LSU players and how well they would perform. I wondered how many games the Tigers would win. And for some silly reason I was consumed with attendance at Tiger Stadium. To me, empty seats in Death Valley amounted to some sort of melodramatic tragedy.
And now another season of LSU football is upon us. I often joke that we can't wait for year to begin and then we immediately complain about anything and everything shortly after the opening kickoff. It's too hot, the kicker can't reach the end zone, the piped in music is too loud, the concessions are lousy, Mike The Tiger doesn't come to the stadium anymore, tailgating isn't what it used to be, Kirk Herbstreit is out to get us, CBS hates us....and on and on.
This LSU season has the potential to deliver even more griping and angst than usual, if you believe the preseason talk. At SEC Football Media Days in July, LSU was picked fifth out of seven teams in the SEC West. The Tigers are #24 in the Coaches' Poll and #25 in the AP Poll, their lowest preseason ranking since Nick Saban's first season in Baton Rouge roughly 20 years ago. And that LSU team was coming off a disastrous 3-8 campaign that included the firing of Gerry Dinardo.
The Tigers schedule is murder - four opponents are currently ranked in the Top 10. LSU faces No. 8 Miami in the season opener Sunday, before games at No. 9 Auburn and home contests vs No. 3 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama. The Tigers also host No. 18 Mississippi State and travel to "The Swamp" for the third time in four years to battle Florida.
LSU fired Les Miles four games into the 2016 season because they felt the program was slipping further and further away from being elite. Winning 8-9 games a season was no longer acceptable. Now I hear many people say "I hope we can go 8-4 this year."
As Ed Orgeron enters his second year as LSU's full-time head coach, many big questions are swirling and most of them surround the offensive side of the ball. The Matt Canada experiment was an epic waste. Did having Canada as the Tigers' offensive coordinator help the Tigers win a game or two more last season? Maybe, maybe not, I can't really say. I'm really tempted to tell you LSU would've done just as well, if not better, had Steve Ensminger remained the offensive coordinator after the 2016 season. I'm not saying Canada is a bad coach, but he obviously has an issue getting along with people, now at his seventh different school since 2010. Orgeron TRUSTS Ensminger and the two get along extremely well. Harmony at the workplace shouldn't be underestimated in this case.
LSU should be entering the second year of someone's offensive system, not implementing yet another scheme. Canada represents more buyout money floating under the purple and gold bridge. LSU unfortunately has gotten really good at paying certain people tons of money to do nothing. Most individuals who get fired at their jobs receive a two week severance and are then told to get the hell out. For whatever reason, many fired college coaches get insanely rich to hang out and chill.
A few months ago I had never heard of Joe Burrow. Chances are you hadn't either. Now he's LSU's starting quarterback and fans are looking to Burrow to be a savior. The Ohio State graduate transfer still hasn't done a single interview with the local media. I can't recall not interviewing an LSU starting quarterback entering the season opener. This isn't criticizing anyone, just speaking to the great mystery surrounding the Tigers' new signal caller who has thrown less than 30 career collegiate passes.
Who is this guy?
Coach Orgeron and his LSU teammates have praised Burrow for coming in low key and NOT talking. No jokes, no boasting, just busting his butt running sprints during the dog days of summer, hitting the weights, throwing with teammates and digesting as much film as possible. While Orgeron keeps saying he wants the Tigers to be 50/50 offensively when it comes to the run and pass, I have the feeling the Tigers will be putting the ball in the air much more than that. Ensminger, a former LSU quarterback, has said he looks forward to throwing the ball and on more than one occasion has made it clear the strength of the offense is the wide receivers. Will Burrow be hitting highly heralded freshman targets like Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Alexander for big yardage this season? Will Jonathan Giles, who posted over 1,100 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns with Texas Tech in 2016, make an impact in the SEC? What about the latest Jefferson, Justin, who made that one-handed stab and went 90-yards for a score in the Spring Game?
Burrow could be running for his life if the LSU offensive line doesn't settle in and help produce some semblance of a rushing attack. After years of turning around and handing the football to guys like Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Jeremy Hill, Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, there is no running back on the LSU roster with that kind of reputation. At least not yet. God bless Nick Brossette, who deserves some good things to finally happy to him this season as a senior. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a low to the ground runner with some power. But the leading rusher this season before all is said and done could be true freshman Chris Curry from Florida. None of these backs have been described as a "home run threat", but collectively perhaps they can give the Tigers what they need to keep defenses honest and to help the play-action passing game thrive.
As a freshman, linebacker Devin White was on an LSU defense that featured such names as Jamal Adams, Tre'Davious White, Arden Key, Davon Godchaux and Duke Riley. Despite that, Riley feels like this defense can be better than that one. Whoa. That was the same defense that held Alabama scoreless through three quarters and shut down Louisville Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson to zero touchdowns in The Citrus Bowl. Highly compensated and equally respected defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is entering his third year at LSU and the feeling is Aranda will have some nice surprises for opposing offenses this season. The Tigers believe they have enough personnel to mix and match, while Aranda implements many more disguising schemes to utilize that personnel.
Along with the insanely talented White is sophomore cornerback Greedy Williams. The two have dominated preseason All-SEC and All-American teams. The NCAA's absolutely shocking decision to reinstate Kristian Fulton gives LSU another great talent at the other corner opposite Williams, while true freshman Kelvin Joseph from Scotlandville is also drawing rave reviews. The X-Factor in all of this could be sophomore edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson. Chaisson's teammates believe he will break LSU sack records before all is said and done. Make no mistake, he certainly looks the part, but like everyone else Chaisson must prove it on the field.
And now to Orgeron. On one hand, it seems ridiculous and almost mean spirited to say he's on the hot seat. LSU should've beaten Notre Dame in the bowl to finish 10-3 overall and their 6-2 SEC mark was the Tigers' best conference record since 2012. On the other hand, the SEC was really down last year and consequently coaches were axed left and right. Some folks are still embarrassed LSU lost at home to Troy, the kind of torpedo that could've sunk the battleship for the season. Fans also look at what Kirby Smart is doing at Georgia (who has hired just days after LSU decided to keep Les Miles and Georgia fired Mark Richt in November of 2015) and also nervously wonder what Jimbo Fisher can produce at Texas A&M now that the Aggies lured the man the Tigers couldn't.
Outsiders and incredibly, some Louisiana natives mock Orgeron for superficial reasons. They crack jokes about the way he talks and paint him as some kind of outlandish cartoon character. Someone from Louisiana cracking jokes about someone sounding too Cajun. Man, I've heard it all now. College football, in case you haven't noticed, has grown increasingly shallow, just like society in general. More and more people are getting caught up in image, instead of things that actually win football games.
That being said, Orgeron still has much to prove as a head coach and to justify athletic director Joe Alleva's decision to hire him after launching the highly successful, yet maddeningly stubborn and slowly descending Miles. Sunday night vs Miami is absolutely paramount for Orgeron and the entire LSU program. People across the country are starving for college country and there is no other television competition for the Tigers and Hurricanes. Everyone will be watching LSU and TV ratings will be HUGE. Winning the game gives the Tigers some breathing room to lose at Auburn or who knows, perhaps the confidence to believe they can go to Jordan-Hare Stadium and actually win.
Sometimes we blow too much smoke about the importance of season opener. LSU rallied for a crazy victory over Wisconsin in Houston to begin 2014, yet still stumbled to a "meh" 8-5 season and lost in The Music City Bowl to a less than impressive Notre Dame team to finish the year unranked.
But this is different.
LSU cannot lay an egg. They cannot wobble around like a disorganized outfit. A competitive effort, win or lose, is absolutely necessary. Miami's defense has the potential to eat the Tigers alive if LSU's offensive line is stuck in the mud. But the Tigers likewise have the potential to penetrate a Hurricanes' offensive line going through it's share of changes and force turnover prone quarterback Malik Rosier to give the football up. And this Joe Burrow might be the real deal after all. Can Cole Tracy, a transfer from a Division II school in Massachusetts, step onto a stage like this to drill the game-winning field goal? If Tracy and the Tigers follow the cool, sometimes brash confidence of senior tight end and LSU's new No. 18 Foster Moreau, things will be fine.
All of the questions will be answered Sunday night. And you're nervous already.
College football, a game like no other.
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