ENGSTER: Pressure mounts as LSU visits Florida

By JIM ENGSTER | President, Tiger Rag Magazine

After 32 games at LSU, Les Miles enjoyed a 28-4 record and was on his way to the 2007 BCS Championship. After 13 games as head coach, Ed Orgeron is 9-4 and in danger of losing to three teams from Alabama in the same season. This is not the result envisioned by President King Alexander when he and Athletic Director Joe Alleva sacked Miles 53 weeks ago.

Orgeron was secured as interim coach and installed as the permanent head man in a move by Alleva to improve a program that was 114-34 under Miles. A 77-percent winning clip with one national crown and two SEC banners in eleven years was not enough for Miles to avoid the axe after a five point loss on the road to Auburn last Sept. 24.

With an embarrassing 24-21 defeat at Tiger Stadium to Troy, LSU has been outscored 87-63 in its last three games by a trio of mediocre opponents. A 24-point deficit against Mississippi State, Syracuse and Troy does not make the forecast favorable against more challenging foes in October and November.

The test at Florida this week for Orgeron is as pivotal as Nick Saban’s date was with Tennessee in 2000. After four games at LSU, Saban was 2-2 with consecutive losses to Auburn 34-17 and Alabama-Birmingham 13-10.

The UAB debacle was so gut-wrenching that Saban reportedly chewed out his agent for getting him into a fine mess at TigerTown. LSU responded with a 38-31 overtime triumph over No. 11 Tennessee to set the stage for an 8-4 season on the heels of a 3-8 campaign in 1999. Things turned out okay for Nick thereafter.

The victory over Tennessee in 2000 occurred on Sept. 30. Seventeen years later on the same date, the Tigers endured a humiliating performance against a team not as strong as any of the seven SEC foes waiting for LSU in the next two months.

In the last four years, LSU’s recruiting classes have been ranked by Rivals.com as 8th, 2nd, 5th and 8th in the nation. The whining about having a young team is ridiculous. LSU has talent that almost any school in the country would envy. It is insulting to fans who are paying top dollar to view a weak home schedule to pass this year off as a rebuilding project.

The LSU coaching staff is not achieving performance from its athletes that is equivalent to the strength of the roster. There is no excuse for an LSU team with an abundance of four-star recruits losing at home to Troy.

The only consolation is that coaches occasionally recover from slumps. Saban lost his home opener at Michigan State to Colorado State in year four of his tenure at East Lansing. A year later, he was on his way to LSU and has collected five national titles in the 21st Century.

On Jan. 9, 2012, LSU and Alabama were even competitors entering the BCS Championship Game at the Superdome. The Tigers had taken the Game of the Century two months earlier in Tuscaloosa, and Miles was poised to tie Saban with two titles each.

Alabama left New Orleans with a 21-0 triumph, BCS honors and the Tide is 70-7 in the five years since. LSU is 48-21 since Jan. 9, 2012, and the gap between the Tigers and Tide is growing. Alabama has outscored Vanderbilt and Ole Miss 125-3 the past two weeks, making the Nov. 4 date at Tuscaloosa a potential bloodbath for the Bengals.

LSU can turn fortunes around with an upset at Gainesville just as Bill Arnsparger did in 1986. Seven days after losing 21-12 at home to Miami of Ohio, Arnsparger directed his unit to a 28-17 win at Florida, the catalyst to LSU’s first SEC title in 16 years.

There is a real danger that an LSU whipping at the Swamp will be a crippling blow to this team. Athletes are creatures of momentum, and terrible seasons evolve from week to week. There are examples of LSU teams that opened seasons in promising fashion, then caving in as the losses took their toll. In 1975, LSU came within a whisker of beating Nebraska at Lincoln in the opener, but came up short 10-7 and lost seven times.

The 4-7 LSU team of 1983 opened with a 40-35 loss to Florida State and blasted PAC-10 champion Washington 40-14 two weeks later. It was a 31-17 setback to Florida in game four that set the stage for a disastrous 0-6 record in the SEC that sent Jerry Stovall to the exit door eleven months removed from being the National Coach of the Year.

LSU is unlikely to dump Orgeron this season even if his team finishes 3-9. A $12-million buyout clause makes it impractical to can a coach when the campus is fighting for every dollar to stay afloat.

The hottest seat on campus is behind the desk of the athletic director. Alleva placed his faith in Orgeron and will live or die with his record.

LSU has won at least eight games each season for 17 years running. It appears this may be a tall order for the current group of Tigers.

Apathy has become part of the LSU experience. Fans are leaving the arena in droves when the outcome is in doubt. With the game on the line against Troy, there were as many Trojan backers as Tiger fans in the stadium in the final moments. It would have been unthinkable a generation ago to ponder a nearly empty Death Valley with LSU waging a furious comeback that expended to the final gun.

Expectations are so unreasonable that LSU’s season is no longer worth following for an abundance of ticket holders when a national title prospect is taken off the table. For many patrons, the 2017 campaign was effectively over when the Bengals bowed by 30 points to Mississippi State. It is now a question as to whether the players carry the same attitude as disgruntled fans.

The attributes measured by the NFL Scouting Combine are height, weight, speed, power, agility and intelligence. There are no brownie points for grace under pressure. It is probable that LSU will have a number of early draft picks even if the Tigers lose the rest of their games.

With more players in the NFL than any other college, LSU is a pipeline to professional football. But Orgeron faces a crisis. He must exhort his athletes to play their hearts out for the Ole War Skule without regard to their NFL futures.

Orgeron has kids who on the whole are not as privileged as the study body they represent. It is a positive step by President Alexander to require freshman to live on campus even if they desire valet parking for their Lexuses

The head coach is a blue collar fellow who has triumphed over enough adversity to defeat most other men. The way for LSU to pull out of its rut is for Orgeron to coax his players to follow his example of conquering difficulty in dire times.

If Orgeron makes a successful pitch to his troops, the season can be salvaged. Otherwise, 2017 will be remembered as a year of casualties off the field rather than accomplishments on it.

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