NEW ORLEANS – Winning a major college football national championship is one of the hardest mountains to climb in all of sports.
There’s no margin of error in the chase to become one of the four playoff teams with a chance to win it all. One bad autumn Saturday puts title hopes on life support, two means just hoping to be invited to a warm-weather bowl.
Numerous roadblocks – injuries, team discipline problems, wandering focus and a loaded schedule – can derail title aspirations.
If all that can be conquered as No. 1 LSU did here Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome closing a historic 15-0 season with a 42-25 College Football Playoff national championship victory over No. 3 Clemson, then you lift the ultimate trophy.
And if it’s accomplished in the extraordinary manner as demonstrated by LSU setting NCAA single season records for scoring (726 points) and total offense yards (8,526) – “We can’t be touched, it’s as simple as that,” Tigers’ running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said – then you advance to the debate of which is the greatest team ever for one season in college football’s 150-year history.
It may be Nebraska’s 1995 12-0 squad with its victory margin of 38.6 points per game, or the 13-0 1971 Cornhuskers that won 12 games by 24 points or more.
Or then-USC coach John McKay’s 12-0 1972 juggernaut that became the first team to be named No. 1 on every ballot of both the coaches and media polls.
Then there’s the steamroller, armed with an offense that averaged a CFP playoff record 52.5 points in semifinal and championship game wins, the first team ever to beat seven Associated Press top 10 ranked opponents in a single season including the top four teams in the AP’s preseason rankings, and the second college team in the last 121 years to go 15-0.
It’s dominant winning machine that trailed once by double digits all season, lasting 81 seconds in the final magnificent performance of the year.
Welcome 2019 LSU Tigers. Please take your place among the pantheon of college football’s legendary conquerors of all-comers.
“This is a team for the ages, especially how prolific we were on offense, to have that type of quarterback that we have, to go 15-0 with a tremendous schedule, all the top teams that we played and beat,” LSU third-year coach Ed Orgeron said. “We answered the bell. These guys didn’t blink. We didn’t have a bad game. We played 15 good football games, and this is going to be hard to beat.”
It’s amazing story, a program coached by one of its homegrown Cajun-born and raised native sons. He’s someone whose coaching career had been read its last rites a couple of times, yet he turned an interim gig into becoming the fastest coach in LSU history to 40 wins.
“Just keep on fighting, just keep on getting your hands up no matter what happens,” Orgeron said of his career survival skills. “Go back the next day and go to work. Believe and just keep on working.”
His mantra from September 25, 2016, the day LSU head coach Les Miles was fired and when Orgeron transformed from the Tigers’ defensive line coach to interim head coach, has been “one team, one heartbeat.”
It sounds like a textbook coaching cliché, but Orgeron repeated it enough like a sound loop to the point his teams are all in on what he believes is a key to building a championship program.
There won’t be a better example of his current collection of players about to be sized for national champion rings.
From LSU’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow to walkons and scout team members who never got a single game snap, the only statistic that truly mattered was 15-0.
No doubt the team fed off the confident, cool, collected swagger of Burrow, who became the eye of LSU’s “perfect storm” as he liked to describe it.
So rather than looking at the scoreboard, it became about the process of improvement and what Orgeron called playing to the “LSU standard of performance.”
“It’s just playing up to our potential,” Burrow said during the season. If we want to get where we want to go, we have to get better. If we’re satisfied with the performances that we have every Saturday, then we’re not going to get better
“We have a really mature team that understands the magnitude of the moment and understands where we can go as a team. We have team guys all over this program, and they know what we can do, and they know what’s ahead of us.”
It started when he decided LSU would be his new home in the summer of 2018 as a graduate transfer from Ohio State with two years of eligibility. While he quietly went about winning the starting job and the respect of his new teammates, he quickly bonded with Orgeron.
“We just kind of are one and the same from two different places,” Burrow said. “We have the same mentality. Go run through someone’s face. He’s coached that way and played that way for a long time. That’s how I’ve always tried to play the game.”
Burrow was 10-3 last season as a starter. But Alabama’s 29-0 shutout of LSU was Orgeron’s wake-up call to take the leap of faith to update the Tigers’ offense to a spread passing game.
He hired a 29-year old New Orleans Saints assistant named Joe Brady and the offensive wunderkind meshed with 61-year old offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.
Together with Burrow, they created an offense that led Burrow to make a bold prediction this past summer when he met with media as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy.
“We’re going to score a lot of points and I don’t think a lot of people are used to LSU scoring 40, 50, 60 points a game,” Burrow said.
Which Burrow and his array of offensive weapons proceeded to do, scoring in the 40s in five games, four in the 50s including three consecutive November SEC Saturdays and three times in the 60s.
The offense was so good that it gave LSU’s defense filled with future NFL draft choices an inferiority complex in preseason camp.
“They were putting up a lot of points and numbers on us in scrimmages,” said LSU junior safety Grant Delpit, winner of the 2019 Thorpe Award as college football’s best defensive back. “We thought there was something wrong with us on the defensive side, but they were just that good.”
In a season full of eye-popping offensive stats that may never be equaled again, such as Burrow’s SEC record 5,671 yards passing, there are two marks that best represent the out-of-this-world standards set by Burrow and company.
The first is LSU scored 24 times on two or more consecutive touchdown drives and did it at least once in every game.
The Tigers scored TDs on their first five possessions in the season opener against Georgia Southern. LSU had four straight TD drives four times in the third quarter vs. Northwestern State, in the first quarter of the SEC opener at Vanderbilt, in the third quarter against Arkansas and in the first quarter vs. Texas A&M.
Finally, there was the most amazing display of all – seven straight TD possessions in the 63-28 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl CFP semifinal destruction of Oklahoma.
It was the liftoff of Burrow’s tremendous finish that produced that other unforgettable number, his NCAA record of 60 TD passes in a season.
Its more TD passes than LSU had in either the 1950s or 1960s when the Tigers threw for 56 TDs in each of those decades.
Known as a master recruiter, Orgeron has carefully taken the steps to build a program that can be a perennial national championship contender.
He understands the fluidity of college football, like losing assistants and top players in a matter of days of making history.
Less than 24 hours after winning the national championship, Tigers’ passing game coordinator Brady turned down an LSU contract extension to reportedly become offensive coordinator for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
And defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is in mix for the Baylor heading coaching vacancy.
Also, in the next few days, LSU will lose as many as eight to 10 underclassmen declaring for the NFL draft.
Seven players announced Wednesday that they are moving on to pros.
It’s why Orgeron was already thinking about next season while picking championship game celebratory confetti out of his hair.
“We have to start in the weight room, we have to start football school and start recruiting,” Orgeron said. “Now it’s getting back to the grind.”
“Now, it’s getting back to the grind, he said.”
Because the man who proclaimed in November 2017 “we comin’. . .and we ain’t backin’ down” knows he’s positioned to keep going for a long, long time.